The final search by US-based Ocean Infinity for missing airliner MH370, which will start off WA in the next week, features a big improvement in technology from the previous search, according to a leading expert.
Charitha Pattiaratchi, professor of coastal oceanography at the University of WA, told The West Australian the Ocean Infinity survey systems used from the Seabed Constructor vessel would cover 100,000sqkm in just 90 days.
“The previous search took 21/2 years to cover 120,000sqkm,” Professor Pattiaratchi said.
“This is a major step change and I am amazed at what they can do.”
The Seabed Constructor is on its way to the area identified by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and CSIRO as the most likely crash site. It sits just outside the previous search area.
That location is at latitude 35.6°S and longitude 92.8°E on the seventh arc defined by satellite data from the missing Boeing 777. The ATSB-CSIRO area of interest covers 25,000sqkm from 35.6°S to 33°S.
The ATSB location is supported by the re-analysis of four images from the French Pleiades satellite. The images, which show unusual shapes, were captured on March 23, 2014, to the north-west of the seventh arc in an area not searched by aircraft during the surface search.
It is where debris is likely to have drifted in the two weeks after MH370 was lost if the aircraft had hit the water close to the seventh arc around latitude 35°S. If it is not found at the ATSB location, the Seabed Constructor will move north and cover all the major locations that various groups say is the final resting place of MH370.
The plane disappeared on March 8, 2014, with 239 people aboard. Professor Pattiaratchi believes MH370 lies just below latitude 32°S on the seventh arc, while the Independent Group says it could be as high as 30°S.
A ship has left South Africa bound for area of ocean off WA
IG states that “based on some evidence, it is possible it is there (at 30°S), and the search should continue at least that far north, and ideally further north, if not found. We agree with the search strategy of starting with the 25,000 sq km and proceeding north.”
To arrive at its location Professor Pattiaratchi said that UWA was offered free computer time at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth, the largest in the southern hemisphere.
“We were able to run 50,000 debris drift simulations to arrive at our location,” Professor Pattiaratchi said. The area identified by UWA is not an area that the ATSB was able to do a bathymetry survey of in 2014.
Ocean Infinity will use six torpedo-shaped HUGIN vessels launched from the mothership, which will communicate with them using an acoustic modem as they search in parallel for the debris field.
Each submersible is powered by lithium polymer batteries that allows them to remain on station for up to 60 hours as they scan the ocean bed with downward-facing and side-scan sonars. Apart from occasional pings to update the HUGINS’ inertial navigation systems to keep them on course, the robots keep their findings stored on an onboard hard-drive to be downloaded on their return.
The robots can dive to depths of 6000m but it is unlikely they will need to do so in the 25,000sqkm search area designated by experts in 2016, where the maximum depth is believed to be about 5000m.
If the wreckage is found, it will be up to the Malaysian Government to decide what should be retrieved from the ocean floor, how it should be retrieved and who should do the work.
Most important are the plane’s “black boxes” — the flight data and cockpit voice recorders and the plane’s quick access recorder. These are most likely to give some insight into the mystery behind the crash.
Other items include memory from avionics and personal electronic devices and specific parts of the aircraft structure.
A logical move would be to send any recovered items to ATSB headquarters in Canberra for assessment by globally recognised experts.
Australian authorities began planning a recovery operation while the initial search was being conducted.
The plan envisaged recovery operations of up to 30 days at a time co-ordinated by the ATSB in consultation with other agencies and the governments of Malaysia, China and Australia.
A decision to remove human remains would involve a multinational and multi-jurisdictional operation.