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Robot sub returns to water after 1st try cut short

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- A robotic submarine looking for the lost Malaysian jet began its second mission Tuesday after cutting short its first because the ocean waters where it was sent were too deep, officials said.

Monday's planned 16-hour search lasted just six and none of the data collected by the U.S. Navy's Bluefin 21 submarine offered clues to the whereabouts of the plane.

The unmanned sub is programmed to hover 30 meters (100 feet) above the seabed, but it started searching atop a patch that was deeper than the sub's maximum operating depth of 4,500 meters (15,000 feet), the search coordination center and the U.S. Navy said.

A built-in safety feature returned the Bluefin to the surface and it was not damaged, they said.

The data collected by the sub was later analyzed and no sign of the missing plane was found, the U.S. Navy said.

Crews shifted the search zone away from the deepest water before sending the Bluefin back for Tuesday's mission, the U.S. Navy said.

Search authorities had known the primary search area for Flight 370 was near the limit of the Bluefin's dive capabilities. Deeper-diving submersibles have been evaluated, but none is yet available to help.

A safety margin would have been included in the Bluefin's program to protect the device from harm if it went a bit deeper than its 4,500-meter limit, said Stefan Williams, a professor of marine robotics at the University of Sydney.

"Maybe some areas where they are doing the survey are a little bit deeper than they are expecting," he said. "They may not have very reliable prior data for the 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.

Crews collected an oil sample and sent it back to Perth in western Australia for analysis, a process that will take several days, said Angus Houston, the head of the joint agency coordinating the search off Australia's west coast.

He 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 submarine is programmed to take 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 upload the data.

The Bluefin can create a three-dimensional sonar map of any debris on the ocean floor. But the search is more challenging in this area because the seabed is covered in silt that could potentially cover part of the plane.

"What they're going to have to be looking for is contrast between hard objects, like bits of a fuselage, and that silty bottom," Williams said. "With the types of sonars they are using, if stuff is sitting up on top of the silt, say a wing was there, you could likely see that ... but small items might sink down into the silt and be covered and then it's going to be a lot more challenging."

The search moved below the surface after a U.S. Navy device towed by an Australian ship detected underwater sounds 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 last only about a month and are now believed to have failed.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott raised hopes last week when he said authorities were "very confident" the signals 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.

Houston said the signals were a promising lead, but that finding aircraft wreckage in the remote, deep patch of ocean remains extremely difficult.

The black boxes are key to finding the wreckage itself but also could reveal what happened on Flight 370. Investigators believe it crashed 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.

On Tuesday, Malaysia's defense minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, pledged to reveal the full contents of the black boxes if they are found.

"It's about finding out the truth," he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. "There is no question of it not being released."

Up to 11 planes and as many ships were scouring a 62,000-square kilometer (24,000-square mile) patch of ocean about 2,200 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of Perth on Tuesday, hunting for any floating debris.

The weekslong surface search is expected to end in the next two days. Officials haven't found a single piece of debris confirmed to be from the plane, and Houston said the chances that any would be found have "greatly diminished."

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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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Flight 370: How the BlueFin-21 Sonar Sub Works

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mmuhawi April 16 2014 at 4:09 AM

They will find it eventually, but at that point finding boxes could be harder than finding plane itself... I suspect we will know a lot more eventually but it could be long time.

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chrissf4529 April 15 2014 at 1:19 PM

Comments display we are a society looking for instant results. A quick ending. But, as this story shows, it is a big world and despite our belief that we have the technology to solve all problems, our society is one major catastrophe away from becoming cavemen. If you look at peoples behavior after major events, (Katrina for example).We revert to a more primeval state in major catastrophe.

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tim123014 April 15 2014 at 2:01 PM

Reading the comments below is much better than reading the Comics' section of the Sunday newspaper.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
npaleorelic April 15 2014 at 2:18 PM

This headline is no surprise at all. Kinda what we expected all along despite all the breaking "good" news and leads fed to the media for 6 weeks or so. From day one the entire episode has been chaotic, disjointed and confusing with the facts after the plane took off. The Malaysian authorites have come across as incompetent at best and clueless at worst. Plus one must consider various proming other leads which appear to have been discounted as implausible or which countered the official beliefs. This is what happens when official such as Moe, Larry and Curly are heading such an investigation.

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atchicago2 April 15 2014 at 2:23 PM

Would someone explain to me why they still use an archaic black box when they could be recording and transmitting via satellite all cokpit conversations so the they may be retrieve at any time from a land-based location?

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3 replies
Ozzie April 15 2014 at 3:00 PM

I`m praying the plane is found and hop[e they can recover the black boxes.My symphany goes out to the families of those people in the plane.

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Phil April 15 2014 at 3:13 PM

And the plot sickens

Flag Reply +1 rate up
donzidesign April 15 2014 at 3:27 PM

its hard to believe that in this electronic age we count on a black box that sinks instead of all flight info not sent to a i cloud for immediate info and cleared out after flights land safely

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4 replies
Tinkerbellediva April 15 2014 at 6:46 PM

why dont they go with the deep sea car and see what they can find deep in the ocean. It is gonna be hard to find im sure with all the stuff on the ocean bottom. So horrible what happen to all those innocent people. I hope they find something soon.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
Diane Stearns April 15 2014 at 6:45 PM

For all you nay-sayers out there, IT REALLY IS IMPORTANT to find the plane/debris/black box. Not just for the families, although that is definitely a noble mission. We do need to determine if there is a problem with these Boeing 777's so we can prevent this from ever happening again.

It is going to take time and it is going to take money -- we know that. Please stop with all these whacko theories about abductions by aliens, etc., etc., etc.

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1 reply
sebring44 Diane Stearns April 15 2014 at 7:23 PM

wow weird thinking the 777 is the safest over engineered plane in the sky...there is NO proof of mechanica l failure....the 777 hasbeen flying for over adecade and NEVER has had a mechanical problem TRY FACTS NOT FEAR

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