New possible pings detected in hunt for lost jet

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New possible pings detected in hunt for lost jet
In this map provided on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet will likely soon deploy more powerful sonar equipment that can delve deeper as the current search of the most likely crash site in the Indian Ocean has failed to yield any clues, Australia's defense minister said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
In this map provided on Monday, April 14, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued on Monday to focus on a search for weakening radio signals from deep beneath the waves despite evidence mounting that the batteries in the plane’s all-important black boxes may finally have died. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
In this map provided on Monday, April 14, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued on Monday to focus on a search for weakening radio signals from deep beneath the waves despite evidence mounting that the batteries in the plane’s all-important black boxes may finally have died. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
In this map provided on Monday, April 14, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued on Monday to focus on a search for weakening radio signals from deep beneath the waves despite evidence mounting that the batteries in the plane’s all-important black boxes may finally have died. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Ben Pelletier, marine operations engineer for Bluefin Robotics, attempts to retrieve a submarine in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
Cheryl Mierzwa, left, systems engineer for Bluefin Robotics, helps guide a submarine onto the deck of a boat in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
A submarine built by Bluefin Robotics is lowered into the water by systems engineer Cheryl Mierzwa in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
A submarine built by Bluefin Robotics is lowered down onto a boat at their headquarters in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
In this Tuesday, April 8, 2014 photo, Leading Aircraftman Andrew Smith works on a propeller of a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion at RAAF Base Pearce after it arrived back from the ongoing search operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia. The ground crews typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of the missing jetliner continues. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
In this photo taken March 30, 2014, ground crew repair a window on a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion at RAAF Base Pearce after the aircraft returns from the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia. The ground crews typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of the missing jetliner continues. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
In this photo taken March 25, 2014, ground crew work on a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion at RAAF Base Pearce after the aircraft returns from the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia. The ground crew typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of the missing jetliner continues. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
FILE - In this April 3, 2014 photo, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, right, greets a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion captain Lt. Russell Adams and his crew involved in the search for wreckage and debris of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, at RAAF Base Pearce near Perth, Australia. The ground crews at this air force base near Perth typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of missing Flight 370 continues. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, Pool, File)
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 10 : A handout image released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in Canberra, Australia, 10 April 2014, shows the search area in the Indian Ocean, West of Australia, where 14 planes and 13 ships are scouring a 57,923 square km area of ocean for the wreckage of flight MH370 on 10 April 2014. Flight MH370 went missing after losing radio contact with Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control after leaving Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8. The Beijing-bound flight carried 239 passengers including 12 flight crew from 14 different countries. (Photo by AMSA/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Angus Houston (2nd-L), head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 speaks at a media conference in Perth on April 9, 2014. Australian ship Ocean Shield detected two more signals on April 8 to match a pair of transmissions picked up earlier in the week that have been analysed as consistent with flight data recorder emissions, Houston said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 08: Defence Minister David Johnston (R) responds to a reporters question together with Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (Ret'd) during a press conference over the continuing search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at RAAF Base Pearce on April 8, 2014 in Perth, Australia. ACM Angus Houston advised the towed pinger by ADV Ocean Shield is still trying to re-locate the signals previously detected, which were believed to be consistent with aircraft black boxes. The airliner disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board and is suspected to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
A Chinese relative (R) of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 holds a candle as she takes part in a prayer service at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
Angus Houston, head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, points to a graphic of the search area during a media conference in Perth on April 7, 2014. An Australian navy ship has detected new underwater signals consistent with aircraft black boxes, Houston said on April 7, describing it as the 'most promising lead' so far in the month-old hunt for missing Flight MH370. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
A U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon waits at the end of the runway before it takes off from Perth Airport en route to rejoin the ongoing search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia, Monday, April 14, 2014. The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner continued to focus Monday on a search for weakening radio signals from deep beneath the waves despite mounting evidence that the batteries in the plane's all-important black boxes may finally have died. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
A screen inside of a Bluefin Robotics research vessel shows side-scan sonar data retrieved from one of their submarines in Quincy, Mass., Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Bluefin Robotics shipped a version of their submarine to help locate missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, by using its side-scan sonar. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
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PERTH, Australia (AP) - An Australian aircraft hunting for the missing Malaysian jet picked up a new possible underwater signal on Thursday in the same area search crews previously detected sounds that were consistent with an aircraft's black boxes.

The Australian navy P-3 Orion, which has been dropping sound-locating buoys into the water near where the original sounds were heard, picked up a "possible signal" that may be from a man-made source, said Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search off Australia's west coast.

"The acoustic data will require further analysis overnight," Houston said in a statement.

If confirmed, this would be the fifth underwater signal detected in the hunt for Flight 370, which vanished on March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, with 239 people aboard.

On Tuesday, the Australian vessel Ocean Shield picked up two underwater sounds, and an analysis of two other sounds detected in the same general area on Saturday showed they were consistent with a plane's flight recorders, or "black boxes."

The Australian navy has been dropping buoys from planes in a pattern near where the Ocean Shield's signals were heard.

Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Leavy said each buoy is dangling a hydrophone listening device about 300 meters (1,000 feet) below the surface. The hope, he said, is that the buoys will help better pinpoint the signals, along with the Ocean Shield, which is slowly dragging a U.S. navy pinger locator through the water.

Zeroing in on the source of the sounds is critical to narrowing down the underwater search zone, which is currently a 1,300 square kilometer (500 square mile) patch of the ocean floor. Once the exact location is pinpointed, crews can send an unmanned submarine into the ocean's depths to create a sonar map of a potential debris field on the seabed.

The Bluefin 21 sub takes six times longer to cover the same area as the pinger locator, and it would take the vehicle about six weeks to two months to canvass the underwater search zone, which is about the size of Los Angeles. That's why the acoustic equipment is still being used to hone in on a more precise location, U.S. Navy Capt. Mark Matthews said.

Meanwhile, a hunt for debris on the ocean surface intensified Thursday, with the search zone narrowed to its smallest size yet - 57,900 square kilometers (22,300 square miles), or about one-quarter the size it was a few days ago. Fourteen planes and 13 ships were taking part in the hunt for floating debris, about 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of Perth.

A "large number of objects" had been spotted by crews combing the area for floating debris on Wednesday, but the few that had been retrieved by search vessels were not believed to be related to the missing plane, the search coordination center said.

Crews hunting for debris on the surface have already looked in the area they were crisscrossing on Thursday, but were moving in tighter patterns, now that the search zone has been narrowed to about a quarter the size it was a few days ago, Houston said.

Houston has expressed optimism about the sounds detected earlier in the week, saying on Wednesday that he was hopeful crews would find the aircraft - or what's left of it - in the "not-too-distant future."

Finding the flight data and cockpit voice recorders soon is important because their locator beacons have a battery life of about a month, and Tuesday marked one month since Flight 370 disappeared. The plane veered off-course for an unknown reason, with officials saying that satellite data indicates it went down in the southern Indian Ocean. The black boxes could help solve that mystery.

But if the batteries fail before the recorders are located, finding them in such deep water - about 4,500 meters, or 15,000 feet - would be difficult, if not impossible.

A data analysis of the signals heard Saturday indicated they were distinct, man-made and pulsed consistently - indicating they are coming from an aircraft's black box, Houston said.

An Australian government briefing document circulated among international agencies involved in the search on Thursday said it was likely that the acoustic pingers would continue to transmit at decreasing strength for up to 10 more days, depending on conditions.

Once there is no hope left of the Ocean Shield's equipment picking up any more sounds, the Bluefin sub will be deployed.

Complicating matters, however, is the depth of the seafloor in the search area. The pings detected earlier are emanating from 4,500 meters below the surface - which is the deepest the Bluefin can dive.

"It'll be pretty close to its operating limit. It's got a safety margin of error and if they think it's warranted, then they push it a little bit," said Stefan Williams, a professor of marine robotics at Sydney University.

The search coordination center did not immediately respond to a question about its contingency plans should the black box be too deep for the sub to reach. But Williams suspects if that happens, the search will be delayed while an underwater vehicle rated to 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) was dismantled and air freighted from Europe, the U.S. or perhaps Japan.

Williams said colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts had autonomous and remotely operated underwater vehicles that will dive to 11 kilometers (36,100 feet), although they might not be equipped for such a search.

Underwater vessels rated to 6,500 meters (21,300 feet) could search the sea bed of more than 90 percent of the world's oceans, Williams said.

"There's not that much of it deeper than six and a half kilometers," he said.

Williams said it was unlikely that the wreck had fallen into the narrow Diamantina trench, which is about 5,800 meters (19,000 feet) deep, since sounds emanating from that depth would probably not have been detected by the pinger locator.

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