What started as a vast search of practically an entire quarter of the globe is now focused on a relatively small section of the expansive Indian Ocean’s depths — and a small robotic submarine gives new hope for finding the wreckage of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
The U.S. Navy's sophisticated "Bluefin-21" was launched Monday from the Australian navy ship Ocean Shield to search a targeted section of the ocean floor some 2.8 miles beneath the ocean’s surface, but AUV was only able to complete six out of 16 scheduled hours of searching on its first run.
It exceeded its "operation depth limit" of 14,763 feet and a built in safety feature forced it to return to the surface, officials said.
The small amount of data that was gathered is "being extracted and analysed," officials said on Monday evening (Tuesday morning local time) and the Bluefin was set to be redeployed later in the day when weather conditions permitted.
Even without these unexpected delays, mapping the surface of one of the world’s deepest oceans doesn't happen quickly — the robot sub had gone under the waves just before 5:30 p.m. local time ( 5:30 a.m. ET) and wasn't expected to yield its first set of data until 24 hours later.
"This will be a slow and painstaking process."
"It is kind of a slow process," Katy Delaney, a spokeswoman with Batelle, the company that owns Bluefin Robotics, told NBC News on Monday evening. "It's just going to take a while for it to do its job."
It takes the bot two hours to descend into the murky deep, 16 hours to search the 15-square mile area, another two hours to come back up, and then four hours for analysts to download its information, officials said.
"The data has to be analyzed," said Delaney, "basically when you download the data, it's a steady feed of the ocean floor."
The Bluefin is just 21 inches wide and 16 feet long, but weighs 1,650 pounds and can dive to a depth of 14,700 feet, according to the Bluefin Robotics. It uses nine battery packs that can last for over 24 hours and has a 4 gigabyte flashdrive.
In addition to other oceanographic data, Delaney said the Bluefin will spit out an image that shows the contours of the sea bottom, save for a 21-inch line that represents the submarine itself.
She said the "captured images are laid out in a mosaic then viewed by people to look for objects."
If any potential wreckage from the plane is spotted, the Bluefin will be sent back to take more detailed photographs — in underwater conditions with extremely low light.
Searchers are confident they know the approximate position of wreckage of the Boeing 777, which disappeared on March 8 with its 239 passengers and crew.some 963 miles northwest of Perth, and are moving ahead on the basis of four acoustic signals they believe are from its black box recorders.
The total search area the Bluefin will eventually cover — if nothing is found early — is around 230 square miles, and officials said it could take months to scan and map the entire zone.
"Any time you're exploring areas of the world that have never been seen before that generates excitement"
"Despite the lack of further detections, the four signals previously acquired taken together constitute the most promising lead we have in the search for MH370," Angus Houston, the Australian search chief, told reporters in Perth on Monday.
Houston also cautioned against beliefs that the underwater vehicle will find wreckage. "It may not," he said. "This will be a slow and painstaking process."
Houston noted that the ocean floor being searched was "new to man," and Delaney also said the images would be of great interest to the oceanographic community.
"Any time you're exploring areas of the world that have never been seen before that generates excitement, definitely," she said.
A visual search for debris on the ocean surface also continues over 18,400 square miles of water about 1,400 miles northwest of Perth.
If the black box, or any other wreckage is found, Malaysian authorities would formally have custody over it, according to international aviation conventions. Australian officials have said they would hold any evidence found in their waters for Malaysia.
— With Emma Ong and Miriam Firestone
First published April 14 2014, 4:54 PM