KUALA LUMPUR – A mini-submarine searching for the missing Malaysian plane has completed a full mission at its third attempt, as the two previous missions to scour the floor of the Indian Ocean for wreckage were cut short by technical problems, a foreign media reported on Thursday.
The BBC reported that the data from the latest mission was being analysed. It is searching in the area acoustic signals thought to be from the missing plane's "black box" flight recorders were heard. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 – carrying 239 people – disappeared on March 8, 2014 as it flew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Using satellite data, officials have concluded that it ended its journey in seas west of the Australian city of Perth. The Bluefin-21, operated by the US Navy off the Australian vessel Ocean Shield, is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that can identify objects by creating a sonar map of the sea floor.
Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters that teams would need to regroup and reconsider search efforts eventually. “There will come a time when we need to regroup and reconsider, but in any event, the search will always continue. It's just a matter of approach,” he said. The submersible has an operating depth of 4,500m (15,000ft) and on its first mission a built-in safety device returned it to the surface after it exceeded that depth.
Its second mission was also cut short because of unspecified technical difficulties, but the third mission – a full 16 hours, plus two hours each way for diving and surfacing – went according to plan. “Overnight Bluefin-21 AUV completed a full mission in the search area and is currently planning for its next mission,” the BBC quoted statement of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC).
"Bluefin-21 has searched approximately 90 sqkm to date and the data from its latest mission is being analysed." Later on Thursday, the JACC said the Bluefin-21's manufacturer had advised that the machine could operate deeper than 4,500m at a small but acceptable level of risk. As a result, the submersible could now operate within the predicted limits of the current search area, it said, without specifying how deep the Bluefin-21 would be sent.
A sample from an oil slick in the area the acoustic signals were heard in was sent to Perth for testing. However, the JACC confirmed on Thursday that the oil sample was not aircraft engine oil or hydraulic fluid. Officials have warned that the search for wreckage on the sea floor could take weeks or months.