Sunday, December 21, 2014

‘Pings’ consistent with black boxes

PERTH, Australia—An Australian ship detected two distinct, long-lasting sounds underwater that are consistent with the pings from aircraft black boxes in a major break in the month-long hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, the search co-ordinator said today.
Navy specialists urgently were trying to pick up the signal again so they can triangulate its position and go to the next step of sending an unmanned miniature submarine into the depths to try to identify plane wreckage.

Confirmation that the signals picked up by the Australian navy ship Ocean Shield belong to Flight 370’s black boxes could take days, but the discovery offers “a most promising lead” yet, said Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency co-ordinating the multinational search.
They were stronger and lasted longer than faint signals a Chinese ship reported hearing farther south in the search zone in the remote Indian Ocean.
“Clearly this is a most promising lead and probably in the search so far, it’s probably the best information that we have had,” Houston said at a news conference.
“We’ve got a visual indication on a screen and we’ve also got an audible signal—and the audible signal sounds to me just like an emergency locator beacon,” he added.
After a month-long search for answers filled with dead ends, today’s news brought fresh hope given that the two black boxes, which contain flight data and cockpit voice recordings, are the key to unraveling exactly what happened to Flight 370 and why.
Little time is left to locate the devices, which have beacons that emit “pings” so they can be more easily found.
The beacons’ batteries last only about a month—and tomorrow marks exactly one month since the plane disappeared during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
The Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the U.S. Navy, picked up two separate signals late Saturday night and early Sunday morning in seas far off the west Australian coast that search crews have been criss-crossing for weeks.
The first signal lasted two hours and 20 minutes before it was lost.
The ship then turned around and picked up a signal again—this time recording two distinct “pinger returns” that lasted 13 minutes, Houston noted.
Still, he warned it was too early to say the transmissions were coming from the missing jet.
“I would want more confirmation before we say this is it,” Houston stressed.
“Without wreckage, we can’t say it’s definitely here. We’ve got to go down and have a look.”
The ping locator is pulled behind the ship at a depth of three km and is designed to detect signals at a range of 1.8 km, meaning it would need to be almost on top of the black boxes to detect them if they were on the ocean floor, which is about 4.5 km deep.
“It’s like playing hot and cold when you’re searching for something, and someone’s telling you you’re getting warmer and warmer and warmer,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Mark Matthews.
The Ocean Shield slowly was canvassing a small area trying to find the signal again, though that could take another day, Matthews noted.
If they pick up the signal again, the crew will launch an underwater vehicle to investigate, he said.
The Bluefin 21 autonomous sub can create a sonar map of the area to chart where the debris may lie on the sea floor.
If it maps out a debris field, the crew will replace the sonar system with a camera unit to photograph any wreckage.

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