The announcement that the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is believed to have plunged in the southern Indian Ocean sets off a new phase of the search for the Boeing 777 as authorities pivot to a gut-wrenching recovery mission.
Search operations off the coast of Australia were suspended just after daybreak Tuesday (local time) due to bad weather, authorities said — but when the mission resumes, investigators will be in a race against time to find the doomed airplane's voice and data recorders before the battery-powered underwater signal they transmit is silenced forever.
The so-called "black boxes" may help authorities figure out why MH370 crashed into the Indian Ocean on what should have been a routine flight to Beijing. But the clock is ticking: The battery life of the "pinger" in the devices may have as little as two weeks left.
"You really need these black boxes to tell you what went on in the airplane," Robert Hager, who covered aviation for NBC News for 25 years, said on TODAY early Monday.
Crews trying to track down the signal will use a high-tech listening device loaned by the U.S. Navy. One of the Navy's Towed Pinger Locators (TPL) — a sophisticated underwater microphone shaped like a stingray — was already on its way to the region and is expected to arrive in Australia on Wednesday morning.
The precise location of the airplane remained unknown Monday — although Malaysian authorities have said a British satellite company has pinpointed its last position in the Indian Ocean, where several countries involved in the frantic search have reported spotting floating debris.
But naval officials emphasized that they were sending the device only as a prudent step for “if or when” a debris field is found that could substantially narrow the search area.
The 30-inch-long TPL is towed behind a commercial vessel at slow speeds in a grid formation — and is capable of detecting the faint "pings" down to a depth of roughly 20,000 feet, according to Jim Gibson, the general manager of Phoenix International Holdings, Inc., the Navy's contractor for deep ocean search and recovery equipment.
"Assuming the pinger is working ... we can potentially hear a pinger up to about a mile and in some cases up to two miles," said Gibson. "But there are a lot of variables there — depth, whether the black box was buried, and a whole host of other things."
Also on Monday, the Pentagon said that in addition to the TPL, the Navy is dispatching an unmanned "mini-sub" to assist in the search once an approximate location for the downed airliner is established.
That mini sub — an autonomous underwater vehicle manufactured by Bluefin Robotics Corp. and equipped with side-scanning sonar an en echo sender — can run for up to 20 hours at depths of 15-thousand feet.
Like the TPL, the Bluefin is being shipped to Perth on a commercial aircraft and should arrive off the coast of Australia at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday local time, according to the Pentagon.
In addition to the U.S. Navy equipment, an Australian Navy support vessel — the Ocean Shield — was en route toward the search zone and was expected to arrive in three or four days, a defense official told The Associated Press. That ship is equipped with acoustic detection tools that can scour the sea for the black boxes.
For the investigators hunting for wreckage and debris, time is of the essence — and a positive identification could be a veritable smoking gun.
"We've got to get lucky," John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the AP. "It's a race to get to the area in time to catch the black box pinger while it's still working."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published March 24 2014, 4:24 PM