Australia’s search for MH370: Six questions

KUALA LUMPUR, March 22 — Today marks the fifth day of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean.

On Thursday, satellite images showed two large objects floating in icy waters far away from the nearest land.

As the operation to find the airliner continues, here is a recap of where things stand.

What is the current situation?

The red-eye flight disappeared off civilian air traffic control screens without issuing a distress call at 1.22am on March 8 about 120 nautical miles off the coast of Kota Bharu, in the South China Sea.

After a week’s search in the South China Sea, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said on March 15 that the plane’s final communication with a satellite placed it somewhere in one of two corridors: a northern arc stretching from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, or a southern one stretching from Indonesia and into the vast southern Indian Ocean.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced to the country’s Parliament on Thursday that satellite images, examined by its Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (ADIGO), found two objects — with the larger measuring 24 metres and the smaller five metres — on a remote patch of the southern Indian ocean.

“It’s probably the best lead that we have right now, but we have to get there, find them, see them to know,” AMSA’s general manager John Young told reporters Thursday.

The operation to find the airliner, involving planes from Australia, New Zealand and the US has been hampered by limited fuel capacities — the aircraft take off daily from Western Australia, the closest land mass and fly out 2,500km to reach the object site. Bad weather has added to visibility issues.

The search continues today with the weather expected to improve but there have been no sightings so far.

US satellite company DigitalGlobe confirmed that the images were taken by its satellite on March 16. Analysts have said the images were likely to have been analysed by both US and Australian military before Abbott’s announcement.

According to several air crash investigators, the objects are unlikely to be parts of the aircraft, which are heavy and would have sunk.

Instead, they said that floating debris are usually buoyant items such as life jackets and seat cushions.

Oceanographers have said that the particular stretch of ocean is remote and is rarely traversed even by long-haul ships travelling to research bases in Antarctica.

“It’s a pretty pristine part of the ocean which indeed means that if this is debris... it’s highly likely either from the plane or it comes from some ship in the ocean itself, and there’s not a lot of shipping going on,” Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at Sydney’s University of New South Wales, was quoted as saying by the Australian Associated Press.

Where is the operation?

The initial search had focused on South China Sea when it was believed that the plane might have crashed near Vietnam.

The search area was then widened to the Straits of Malacca and the southern Andaman Sea when evidence was found that the plane might have turned back.

After it was established that one of the possible paths for MH370 is southwards, Australia and Indonesia both agreed to lead search operations in the region.

Australia’s search is focused on a 23,000-sq km area in the southern Indian Ocean, along the southern corridor of MH370’s possible paths.

The area was chosen based on the information made available to Australia’s Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and refined in conjunction with other agencies, the agency said earlier this week.

The current area of interest is a smaller patch located 2,300 km away from Perth and is said to be roughly the size of Italy.

It is located just around 1,000km south from the Diamantia Fracture Zone, which includes the Diamantia Trench on its eastern part.

The 7.3km-deep trench called Diamantina Deep, which is among the deepest points in the Indian Ocean, is located there.

Nearby lies the Southeast India Ridge which slopes away from a peak roughly 2.5km under the surface of the sea to a depth of some 4km.

Who is involved?

The operation is co-ordinated by AMSA, with today’s search involving four military and one civilian aircraft.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has tasked three of its P-3 Orion maritime surveillance planes for the search today.

These are joined by one ultra-long-range Bombardier Global Express jet, and the US Navy’s P-8 Poseidon military aircraft.

A Norwegian car carrier vessel, the Hoegh St. Petersburg, joined the search on Thursday, and will continue today; one more merchant vessel is on the way to join the operation.

The Royal Australian Navy replenishment ship HMAS Success is also on its way to the location and is due to arrive at the site today.

Previous operations also included the RAAF’s C-130J Hercules transport aircraft and another P-3 Orion from the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

The operation will soon be joined by five ships and three ship-borne helicopters from China, in addition to China’s two Ilyushin IL-76s and one Shaanxi Y-8 transport planes that arrived in Malaysia this morning.

Japan will also send two of its P-3 Orions, while the UK is sending its hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo.

In total, there are 18 ships, 29 aircraft and 6 ship-borne helicopters deployed along the northern and southern corridors as of yesterday.

Six merchant ships have joined in AMSA’s search so far.

While the greatest deployment of multinational assets are concentrated in the southern corridor, Malaysia has said it is continuing the northerly search over land until AMSA is able to confirm the objects are definitely debris belonging to MH370.

How are they looking for the debris?

The satellite images that triggered this specific search were taken by WorldView-2, which was launched on October 8, 2009 and takes new photos of locations around the Earth every 1.1 days.

“DigitalGlobe have several satellites and they have the highest accuracy in terms of pixels of any commercial satellite imaging system. They’re basically spy satellites,” Chris Rizos, a professor of geodesy and navigation at the University of New South Wales told UK daily The Guardian.

The C-130 Hercules were then dispatched to do the initial leg work by dropping marker buoys to provide an on-going reference point.

Meanwhile, the P-3 Orion aircrafts which make up the bulk of the search, are veterans of ten years serving in the Middle East and are equipped with sonobuoys which can locate underwater objects, and other rescue kits.

HMAS Success, which is commanded by Captain Allison Norris and is on the way, is built to replenish ships with fuel, ammunition, food and stores at sea. It may also carry a Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel boat and a Sea King transport-utility helicopter.

The most sophisticated asset however is the US’ P-8 Poseidon, a converted Boeing 737 usually tasked with anti-submarine warfare and electronic intelligence with its Raytheon multi-mission surface search radar.

On the other end of the sophistication spectrum is the Norwegian car carrier, which will likely only use binoculars, according to the head of shipping at Hoegh, Olav Sollie.

“The best way with this size of a vessel [which is 230m long] it sounds probably old-fashioned, but its a very good way of doing a search on sea, that is on deck with a binocular,” he told reporters yesterday.

When will we know more?

Following Abbott’s announcement to the Australian Parliament, AMSA sent for two merchant ship to scour the area together with HMAS Success.

The second merchant ship is scheduled to arrive tonight.

The authority said yesterday that the search area was four hours away from the nearest air base, leaving search planes only enough fuel for two hours of searching.

AMSA said yesterday that a definite answer to whether the debris captured by satellite imagery is related to MH370 will be available within three days.

“Every effort is being made to locate the objects seen in the satellite imagery. It must be stressed that these sightings, while credible, are still to be confirmed,” Malaysia’s acting Transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein reiterated yesterday.

Why is it important to find the debris quickly?

With 14 days gone, crash investigators have just 16 days before the emergency beacons of the flight data and cockpit voice recorders exhaust their 30-day batteries.

The search team will have a difficult time picking up ultrasonic pingers, the device that transmits short high-pitched signals at brief intervals for detection, considering the vast are of the ocean involved, the temperature of the waters and depth of the identified location.

Experts have noted that finding MH370’s black box will be harder than that of Air France flight AF447, which the flight has been compared to.

“AF447 had a good Last Known Position (LKP) which provided search teams with an approximate location to focus a search for debris,” said David Gallo, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, noting that MH370 does not have the LKP.

Families of the passengers and crews have grown increasingly restless with the fruitless search after close to two weeks since the plane went missing.

The pressure has piled up on Malaysia’s government and officials as the search wears on, especially from Beijing where state news agencies have openly attacked Putrajaya for its alleged secrecy.  Relatives have vented their fury on government officials.

University of Newcastle’s meteorologist Martin Babakhan said the objects seen by the satellite might have moved “around 200 or 300 kilometres” since it was last spotted.

Strong westerly currents in the Indian Ocean also have pushed AMSA’s search areas further to the east each day.

Even then, oceanographer Gallo predicted that just getting the required robotic submersibles to the site would take a month, and once they arrive it could be one to six months before they find the missing airliner.