Submarine in MH370 Hunt May Complete Mission Next Week

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An unmanned submarine hunting for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane probably will complete its inspection of a targeted area of the Indian Ocean within a week, as authorities in Kuala Lumpur said the search may be broadened.

The Bluefin-21 today made its seventh dive within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius of an area where signals were detected April 8 that may have been emitted by one of Flight MH370’s black boxes, said the Australian agency set up to oversee the operation from Perth, the Joint Agency Coordination Centre. The vessel should complete its mission in the "focused underwater area" in five to seven days, the JACC said.

“This is not to stop operations but to also consider other approaches which may include widening the scope of the search and utilizing other assets,” Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters today without taking questions. “All efforts will be intensified. Whatever the outcome of the next few days, we need to regroup and reconsider the operations.”

At 43 days, the hunt for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane that disappeared March 8 with 239 people on board, is the longest for a missing passenger jet in modern aviation history. As many as 11 military aircraft and 12 ships were checking for debris in the waters off western Australia today. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority planned a visual search of 50,200 square kilometers, it said on its website.

“We’re satisfied with progress so far, although there have been some planning adjustments,” the JACC said in an e-mailed response to questions today.

Sixth Dive

The submarine failed to find “contacts of interest” during its sixth dive overnight and data from the mission is being reviewed, according to the JACC. Analysis of an oil slick found last weekend in the search area showed the substance didn’t come from an aircraft engine or hydraulic fluid, it said.

The Bluefin-21’s side-scan sonar is pivotal to the hunt for wreckage because the batteries in Flight 370’s black boxes have probably expired. Four audio pulses from the crash-proof recorders were detected from April 5 to April 8.

Reports that the submarine could take as long as two months to scan the entire area are incorrect because detailed acoustic analysis has allowed the search to be narrowed, the Australian newspaper said today, citing JACC head Angus Houston. The former air chief marshal declined to specify how long it would take, according to the paper.

Route Deviation

The Boeing Co. 777 strayed from its intended flight path to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, turning “leftward” in Vietnamese airspace before vanishing from radar screens, CNN said on its website yesterday, citing an unidentified Malaysian aviation source. It climbed to 38,000 feet (11,582 meters) and flew at that altitude for about 20 minutes over the Malaysian Peninsula before descending, it reported.

The aircraft was equipped with four emergency-locator transmitters designed to send signals to a satellite when triggered by a crash or by contact with water, CNN said.

The Bluefin-21, which bounces sound waves off the ocean floor to create images of the seabed, is designed to be deployed for 24 hours at a time. Its first foray was cut short when a built-in safety feature forced a return to the surface after it dived deeper than its operating limit of 4,500 meters.

A second attempt was interrupted by a battery malfunction, according to Jim Gibson, the general manager of Phoenix International Holdings Inc., the contractor performing the search. The software has been adjusted to allow the submarine to go deeper, the JACC said.