Australia to study drift of MH370 debris

The shadow of a Royal New Zealand Air Force maritime search aircraft is seen as it looks for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in 2014.
The shadow of a Royal New Zealand Air Force maritime search aircraft is seen as it looks for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - Replicas of a large piece of debris from missing Malaysia Airlines jet MH370 will be set adrift and tracked by satellite in the hope of helping find the plane's crash site, Australian officials said Wednesday (Aug 24).

Canberra is leading the search for the aircraft which vanished in March 2014 with 239 people onboard and is currently probing the Indian Ocean floor off the Australia's far west coast.

In a regular update on the underwater search, which has so far failed to find a single piece of debris from the plane, the Australian government said a new drift modelling study would be done.

The government's Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) said while experts had been working to model the drift of MH370 debris over the past 18 months, a "further intensive study will be undertaken".

Of particular interest to the modelling will be the first piece of debris found from MH370 - a two-metre wing part known as a flaperon - which washed up on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion in July 2015.

"Over the last nine months there has been a range of debris found along western Indian Ocean shorelines that has been linked to MH370," JACC said in the statement.

"The flaperon is, however, particularly important as it was the first piece of debris to be found and therefore it spent the least amount of time adrift."

Phase one of the study, which will commence in coming months, involves setting adrift ocean drifter buoys used in a global drifter programme along with models of the flaperon which have been fitted with satellite trackers.

"The models will be tracked to establish the rate and direction of drift relative to the drifter buoys in open ocean conditions when subject to similar winds, currents and waves," JACC said.

Some 30 years of real-life drift data available from the global drifter programme will then be used to model the movement of the flaperon.

The agency has committed to combing some 120,000 square kilometres of ocean floor in a process which is expected to end in December.

But it has faced scrutiny about whether the plane - which diverted from its route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing for reasons unknown - is searching in the right area.

The current search zone was defined under the "most likely" scenario that no-one was at the controls and the plane ran out of fuel.

Australian authorities stressed that the drift modelling was only one aspect of the search.

"On its own this information will not be able to identify the precise location of the aircraft," it said.

"It is hoped, however, that when added to our existing knowledge and any future learnings a specific location of the aircraft will be able to be identified."