Underwater “pings” detected three weeks ago helped officials narrow down the search zone for the missing Malaysian jet — yielding hope that the “most promising lead” yet presented a pathway to the plane.
But with the U.S. Navy’s sophisticated submarine wrapping up a two-week-long search Friday with nothing to show for the effort, officials are left with few options and the frustrating possibility the hunt could drag on for years.
“We went all-in on this small area and didn’t find anything,” a senior U.S. defense official, speaking under condition of anonymity, told Reuters. “Now you’ve got to go back to the big area. And now you’re talking years.”
The Navy’s unmanned drone, the Bluefin-21, was already 95 percent done combing over a 120-square-mile search zone in the southern Indian Ocean, officials said Friday.
“If no contacts of interest are made, Bluefin-21 will continue to examine the areas adjacent to the 10-kilometer radius,” the Australian search coordination center said in a statement.
How large the underwater search zone would grow has not been revealed — but ultimately, the lack of a refined search area could keep the hunt going.
Phoenix International, the company that owns the torpedo-shaped Bluefin-21 and is contracted by the U.S. Navy, said the sub’s schedule remains under discussion.
The Pentagon said Thursday the Defense Department has spent $11.4 million on the search to date.
Australian officials, meanwhile, are hoping to bring in a more powerful sonar submarine that can plunge the full 6,000 meters to the ocean floor. The Bluefin-21 has the capability of reaching a depth of a little more than 4,500 meters.
There are other machines, known as deep-towed vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles, that can drill down farther. It’s just a matter of locating available ones and bringing them to that remote area off the coast of western Australia, said marine scientist Ellen Prager.
“To use this equipment, they’re going to have to bring out a new support ship and new team because these vehicles have their own people that know how they work. That all takes time,” Prager told NBC News.
Once assembled, the search would also take about a week or two, Prager said. A deep-towed vehicle known as the Orion would be beneficial because it can send data to its connected ship in real time without having to resurface.
Bad weather and mechanical difficulties could also delay the search, as was the case with Bluefin-21’s technical setbacks.
Essentially, these upgraded subs can do the job — and if they don’t find anything, then Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is simply not in that area, Prager said.
Since no physical wreckage of the jet has been found, officials are left to go on signals, or “pings,” that were detected April 4 and suspected to be coming from an airplane’s black box recorder.
“They don’t have any other choice. Based on the data they have, all indications are that this is the area where the plane went down,” Prager said.
“Unless they get some new evidence or reevaluate their calculations for where that plane crashed, there’s nowhere else to go.”
— with Reuters
First published April 25 2014, 3:55 AM