Mini-sub completes first full mission in hunt for Malaysian flight MH370

The US Navy’s Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle being positioned for deployment in the southern Indian Ocean to look for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on April 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
The US Navy’s Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle being positioned for deployment in the southern Indian Ocean to look for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on April 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 special report

PERTH (AFP) - A mini-submarine hunting for wreckage of a missing Malaysian airliner has completed its first full mission at the third attempt, officials said on Thursday, as seabed data it retrieved was being analysed.

The first two attempts to scan the deep Indian Ocean off western Australia failed to produce any results.

The first dive began on Monday night but aborted automatically after breaching the sub's maximum operating depth of 4,500m. The second was launched on Tuesday night and cut short on Wednesday morning due to unspecified "technical" troubles.

"Overnight Bluefin-21 AUV completed a full mission in the search area and is currently planning for its next mission," Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) said. "Bluefin-21 has searched approximately 90 sq km to date and the data from its latest mission is being analysed."

The statement gave no other detail about the next dive or the technical issues of the previous forays.

Before the device was put in the water for the third time, data was downloaded from the vehicle while on the deck of the Australian vessel Ocean Shield, which has led the search for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

But initial analysis of the data indicated no significant detections, the JACC said.

MH370 Recovery graphic

The Bluefin's first mission, cut short after just six of an intended 16 hours mapping the seabed with sonar, had also drawn a blank.

After more than three weeks of hunting for black box signals, the autonomous sub was deployed for the first time on Monday night.

The United States navy explained that the Bluefin-21 had automatically aborted its first mission after six hours.

JACC added that it had "exceeded its operating depth limit of 4,500m and its built-in safety feature returned it to the surface".

The sub was undamaged and had to be re-programmed, said US Navy Captain Mark Matthews.

Questions have been raised about how deep the seabed may be in the search area where silt is also expected to be a problem.

JACC chief Angus Houston has stressed that the mini-sub cannot operate below 4,500m and that other vehicles would have to be brought in to cope with greater depths.

Mr Houston had announced on Monday the end of listening for signals from the plane's black box flight recorders and the launch of the submarine operation.

MH370 Sequence of events map

The mini-sub is supposed to conduct a sonar survey of the ocean floor for 16 hours at a time, looking for wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which mysteriously disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The dive takes two hours as does resurfacing.

The US Navy has estimated it would take the Bluefin-21 "anywhere from six weeks to two months to scan the entire search area".

The area has been narrowed down using satellite data and the detection of electronic pulses from the black box which were last heard more than a week ago.

Mr Houston has described those detections as the best lead in the hunt for the plane, and added Monday that an oil slick had also been sighted in the search area.

JACC said on Thursday the oil sample had arrived in Perth for detailed analysis.

The cause of the plane's disappearance, after being diverted hundreds of kilometres off course, remains a mystery. No debris has been found despite an enormous search involving ships and planes from several nations.

The visual search for debris also continued Thursday, JACC said, with as many as 12 aircraft and 11 ships involved over an area of 40,349 sq km - more than 2,170km north-west of Perth.