On April 5, the international search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had its biggest discovery to date - a ping from below the ocean's surface. The ping was discovered by the Ocean Shield, an Australian navy ship towing a US Navy ping locator. Three days after the first two initial pings were discovered, two more pings were heard, giving much credence to the idea that the international search had now been limited to a very defined area.
That area is a five kilometer by eight kilometer area some 963 miles northwest of Perth, Australia.
Unfortunately for search crews, the second set of pings heard on April 8 was the last hint of life observed from the plane's black box. Flight MH370 originally crashed on March 8 after leaving Kuala Lampur, heading toward Beijing. The batteries on a black box are only expected to last for 30 days. As it currently stands, it has been 38 days since the search for the missing plane began.
With the search area now limited and the Ocean Shield ping-locator being no longer of use, the United States Navy has agreed to lend a mini-submarine search vessel to the investigative efforts.
The Bluefin-21 is an autonomous underwater vehicle that the Navy has used with some success before. The submarine was able to find an Air France plane that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
The Bluefin-21 works by using side-scan sonar - a device which can create 3D images of an area by using acoustics rather than light.
The downside of using the Bluefin-21, however, is that the process is slow. For each portion of the search area crews wish to investigate, the Bluefin-21 will need 24 hours to do its thing - two hours to descend to the ocean floor, 16 hours to map the area, two more hours to resurface, and at least four hours to download all of the images and information.
All in all, it may take a couple months for the Bluefin-21 to make the five by eight kilometer area.
"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," stated Angus Houston, head of the search effort.
"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."
Image via YouTube