Searchers for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 are having a final roll of the dice by moving north into a 25,000 sq. km search area defined by a meeting of high-powered experts as the potential crash site.
The last remaining ship in the search, the Dutch-owned Fugro Equator, moved into the new search area on January 6th and is conducting sonar sweeps in a last-ditch attempt to locate the missing Boeing 777, which disappeared in March, 2014 with 239 passengers and crew on board.
The move, less than two weeks before the search is scheduled to end, is an attempt to cover at least some of the area now believed to likely contain the debris field.
The search is being led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which confirmed the change to AirlineRatings.com.
“Fugro Equator is completing its final swing and gathering some sonar data in areas we haven't previously completed,'' an ATSB spokesman said. “Equator's search operations are expected to be completed by the end of January."
Dr Richard Cole, from the University College of London, has been tracking the ship and revealed the decision to head north into the new search area.
“Equator has re-entered the search to the north, away from the area originally identified in late 2014 by the Australian Defence Science and Technology Group,’’ he told The Daily Beast.
“Using a sonar system, it is now checking sea floor not previously scanned. The search has only limited time left, but they are investing this remaining time in scanning the area they now believe is the most likely location of MH370.”
The Equator left Fremantle on Monday December 12 and a typical mission lasts 40 days which would mean that the ship has approximately two more weeks to search this new area.
An $A200m sweep of the 120,000 sq km area defined in 2014 as a probable location for the debris proved fruitless but a meeting in November of global aviation and crash experts defined the additional area using new information from ocean drift research made possible by the discovery of debris on in the Western Indian Ocean from the missing plane.
The new area is deeper and more rugged than the previous search area, with some sections 6000m deep, and experts say a thorough search would require two ships.
All eyes are now on the Malaysian Government, which has responsibility for the investigation, to see whether it will fund the $A40-$A50 million it would take to complete the search of the new area.
The Australian government has shown little enthusiasm for putting extra money into the search but would likely allow the Australian Transport Safety Bureau to continue heading the effort if Malaysia funds it.
The three governments involved in the search — Malaysia, China and Australia — decided last July to end it once the sweep of the original 120,000 sq, km, search zone was complete if no new credible evidence of a specific location for the debris was forthcoming.
The transport ministers of Malaysia and Australia indicated last year the 25,000 sq. km search area was not specific enough, despite a recommendation by the experts that it should be searched to exhaust the remaining possibilities of finding the plane.
The finding that the search should continue is backed by the families of MH370 victims and members of the search team.
Malaysia Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said last week the decision whether or not to extend the search would be taken before the end of January but indicated it was likely to end.
“We are in the final lap. The search will be completed in the next two weeks, then after that we will let people know. We will have a tripartite meeting,” Malaysia’s The Star newspaper quoted Liow as saying.
Platitudes are not enough for families needing answers on MH370: Read our comment on contiuing the search.
Meanwhile, reports have emerged that a French background check of the plane's passengers and crew found nothing suspicious. France is investigating the crash because four French nationals were on board and officials told family members of the victims that the backgound checks had "turned up negative'', AFP reported.