Malaysia jet search area too deep for submarine

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Malaysia Plane Search: Submersible Searches Seafloor For Jet Wreckage

By MARGIE MASON
Associated Press

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- The search area for the missing Malaysian jet has proved too deep for a robotic submarine which was hauled back to the surface of the Indian Ocean less than half way through its first seabed hunt for wreckage and the all-important black boxes, authorities said on Tuesday.

Search crews sent the Bluefin 21 deep into the Indian Ocean on Monday to begin scouring the seabed for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 after failing for six days to detect any signals believed to be from its black boxes.

But after only six hours of its planned 16-hour mission on the sea bed, the autonomous underwater vehicle exceeded its maximum depth limit of 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) and its built-in safety feature returned it to the surface, the search coordination center said in a statement on Tuesday.

What if anything it might have discovered during the six-hour search was still being analyzed, the center said.

The Bluefin 21 will resume the search Tuesday when weather conditions permit, it said.

Search authorities knew that the primary wreckage from Flight MH370 was likely lying at the limit of the Bluefin's dive capabilities. Deeper diving submersibles have been evaluated, but none is yet available in the search area.

Meanwhile, officials were investigating an oil slick about 5,500 meters (3.4 miles) from the area where the last underwater sounds were detected, said Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search off Australia's west coast.

Crews have collected an oil sample and are sending it back to Australia for analysis, a process that will take several days. Houston said it does not appear to be from any of the ships in the area, but cautioned against jumping to conclusions about its source.

The Bluefin 21 can create a three-dimensional sonar map of any debris on the ocean floor.

The search moved below the surface after crews picked up a series of underwater sounds over the past two weeks that were consistent with signals from an aircraft's black boxes, which record flight data and cockpit conversations. The devices emit "pings" so they can be more easily found, but their batteries only last about a month and are now believed dead.

"Today is day 38 of the search," Houston told a news conference on Monday. "We haven't had a single detection in six days, so I guess it's time to go under water."

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott raised hopes last week when he said authorities were "very confident" the four strong underwater signals that were detected were from the black boxes on Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people on board, mostly Chinese.

But Houston warned that while the signals are a promising lead, the public needs to be realistic about the challenges facing search crews in the extremely remote, deep patch of ocean - an area he called "new to man."

"I would caution you against raising hopes that the deployment of the autonomous underwater vehicle will result in the detection of the aircraft wreckage. It may not," Houston said. "However, this is the best lead we have, and it must be pursued vigorously. Again, I emphasize that this will be a slow and painstaking process."

Houston, a retired Australian chief air marshal, called the search "one of the largest search and rescue, search and recovery operations that I've seen in my lifetime."

The Ocean Shield had been dragging a U.S. Navy device called a towed pinger locator through the water to listen for any sounds from the black boxes' beacons.

The Bluefin sub takes six times longer to cover the same area as the ping locator, and the two devices can't be used at the same time. Crews had been hoping to detect additional signals before sending down the sub, so they could triangulate the source and zero in on where the black boxes may be.

The submarine takes 24 hours to complete each mission: two hours to dive to the bottom, 16 hours to search the seafloor, two hours to return to the surface, and four hours to download the data, Houston said.

The black boxes could contain the key to unraveling the mystery of what happened to Flight 370. Investigators believe the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean based on a flight path calculated from its contacts with a satellite and an analysis of its speed and fuel capacity. But they still don't know why.

But Houston said the visual search operation will end in the next two to three days. Officials haven't found a single piece of debris confirmed to be from the plane, and he said the chances that any would be found have "greatly diminished."

"We've got no visual objects," he said. "The only thing we have left at this stage is the four transmissions and an oil slick in the same vicinity, so we will investigate those to their conclusion."

Up to 11 planes and as many ships were to join Tuesday's search over 62,000 square kilometers (24,000 square miles), 2,200 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of Perth.

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Malaysia jet search area too deep for submarine
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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Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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