Mystery around missing Malaysian flight deepens

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The mystery around missing Malaysian flight MH370 deepens as the autonomous underwater vehicle Bluefin-21 wrapped up its search mission with an empty hand and the search area was discounted as the final resting place of the ill-fated aircraft.

The Joint Agency of Coordination Center (JACC) for the search of the MH370 announced Thursday that Bluefin-21 had completed its mission after covering over 850 square kilometres of ocean floor in an area some 1,600 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia.

The area was defined based on the four acoustic signals detected by the Towed Pinger Locator deployed on Australian Defense Vessel Ocean Shield. The signals, or pings as they are called, were believed to be from a man-made device and have all the characteristics of the transmission from an emergency locator beacon.

Bluefin-21 therefore started searching the sea floor of the area, looking for signs of the missing aircraft, be it debris or the so-called "black box", the data and voice recorder of the aircraft.

After painstaking searches of more than 40 days, Bluefin-21 completed its last mission on Wednesday afternoon. The data collected on that mission has been analysed and again no signs of aircraft debris have been found.

Since Bluefin-21 has been involved in the search in mid April, it has scoured over 850 square kilometres of the ocean floor looking for signs of the missing aircraft, said JACC.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has advised that the search in the vicinity of the acoustic detections can now be considered complete and in its professional judgement, the area can now be discounted as the final resting place of MH370.

The announcement came hours after U.S. Navy's deputy director of ocean engineering Michael Dean told CNN that there was now broad agreement the signals came from some other man-made source unrelated to the jet that disappeared on March 8 carrying 239 people.

"Our best theory at this point is that (the pings were) likely some sound produced by the ship... or within the electronics of the towed pinger locator," Dean said.

"Your fear any time you put electronic equipment in the water is that if any water gets in and grounds or shorts something out, that you could start producing sound."

The U.S. Navy has since issued a statement calling Dean's comments "speculative and premature".

"The U.S. has been working cooperatively with our Malaysia, Australian and international partners for more than two months in an effort to locate MH370," a spokesman said.

"Mike Dean's comments today were speculative and premature, as we continue to work with our partners to more thoroughly understand the data acquired by the towed pinger locator."

"As such, we would defer to the Australians, as the lead in the search effort, to make additional information known at the appropriate time."

Earlier this week, the Malaysian government and British satellite firm Inmarsat released data to help determine the path of MH370.

Hours after JACC issued the statement, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told the Australian Parliament that the search for MH370 will go on albeit in "a different phase". He said he still believes the resting place of the aircraft is in the Southern Indian Ocean and along the seventh ping arc.

"We are still very confident that the resting place of the aircraft is in the Southern Ocean and along the seventh ping line, " he said in a statement to Parliament.

"We concentrated the search in that area because the pings, the information we received was the best information available at the time, and that's all you can do in circumstances like this, follow the very best leads."

JACC said in the statement that future search operation will involve three stages: reviewing all existing information and analysis to define a search zone, conducting a bathymetric survey to map the sea floor in the defined search area, and acquiring the specialist services to conduct comprehensive underwater search.

JACC Chief Coordinator Angus Houston last week ordered a " robust" review of all the data about the missing jet amid claims MH370 might not be in the southern Indian Ocean after all.

"The expert satellite working group continues to review and refine complex analyses of radar and satellite data and aircraft performance data to determine where the aircraft most likely entered the water," JACC said.

The Chinese survey ship Zhu Kezhen has already begun mapping of the ocean floor of the areas provided by the ATSB. It will be joined by a contracted survey vessel in June.

The bathymetric survey is expected to take about three months. "Knowing the seafloor terrain is crucial to enabling the subsequent underwater search," JACC said.

The underwater search, aiming to locate the aircraft and any debris or flight recorders, is expected to begin in August and take up to 12 months.

The ATSB will shortly release a formal request for tender to source the capability to undertake the underwater search. A single prime contractor will be chosen to bring together and manage the expertise, equipment and vessels to carry out the search, JACC said.

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