SYDNEY – The search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 will be expanded to include a large new part of the ocean floor, in an operation that may take eight months to complete, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Monday.
For over two weeks, a US Navy Bluefin 21 submarine has been scouring the remote Indian Ocean search area off Australia’s west coast for weeks, but the whereabouts of the aircraft remain unknown since it veered off course on 8 March. The unmanned submarine has created a 3D sonar map of the ocean floor near where signals consistent with airplane black boxes were heard on April 8.
On the other hand, the six-week-long aerial search for the plane is officially end on Monday, the search coordination centre confirmed, and the team will introduce new equipment that can analyse a larger patch of the seabed for the plane and its missing 239 passengers and crew. “It is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface. By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become waterlogged and sunk,” Abbott told reporters.
“Therefore, we are moving from the current phase to a phase which is focused on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area.” Crews will now begin searching the plane's entire probable impact zone, an area 700 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide, Abbott said. But Angus Houston, the head of the search effort, cautioned that the search will take time.
“If everything goes perfectly, I would say we'll be doing well if we do it in eight months,” Houston said, adding that weather and technical issues could prolong the search well beyond that estimate. Officials will now look to recruit private companies to supply additional sonar mapping equipment that can be towed behind boats, to search the expanded area at an estimated cost of $60million. Australia would now seek contributions from other countries to help pay for the new equipment.