Needle in haystack search for black box
Very challenging: US Navy Capt. Mark Matthews. Picture: Getty Images

This is the vessel and the technology that the international search team is pinning its hopes on to find the crucial black box from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

The Australian navy ship Ocean Shield, due to leave Garden Island's HMAS Stirling port for the new search zone today, will use the latest high-tech sonar equipment - including a small unmanned submarine which hovers over the sea floor taking video - to try to find the black box and help solve the mystery that has gripped the world.

Yesterday, the crew was working feverishly to stock the vessel in preparation for the 30-day mission. It is expected to take three days to reach the current search zone.

The Ocean Shield loaded the Phoenix Towed Pinger Locator, which pinpoints black box beacons, and the Bluefin Robotics Bluefin-21 deep-sea drone fitted with side-scan sonar arrays or camera.

Despite the technology, US Navy Capt. Mark Matthews conceded yesterday the search would be "very challenging" because the vessel faced a huge search area, estimated to be about the size of Victoria.

The Ocean Shield only operates at 5km/h, meaning finding the black box in the area is a needle in the haystack scenario until the plane's likely point of impact is found.

It had also been feared the 30-day life of the "pinger" within the black box could expire before the equipment arrived.

But Capt. Mark Matthews said yesterday although the pinger was certified for 30 days, in his experience they could last up to 45 days.

It has been 23 days since flight MH370 disappeared.

"The detection range for the pinger locator is approximately one mile (1.6km), so it is absolutely critical that the surface search for the debris is well conducted (so) we can find the probable point of impact," Capt. Matthews said.

"But we don't have a defined area yet . . . it's going to be very challenging."

The ocean where the multinational team of searchers is trying to find MH370 is the least well known on the planet and up to 4km deep.

According to one of the world's leading oceanographers, Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi, Winthrop professor of coastal oceanography at the University of WA, the area is known as the Diamantina Fracture Zone and was last surveyed in 1961. "We know more about the Moon's surface than we do about the ocean floor in that region," Professor Pattiaratchi said.

Search activities yesterday involved 10 aircraft and eight ships over an area of 319,000sqkm, 1850km west of Perth.

More debris was sighted and picked up but none identified as belonging to MH370.

The West Australian

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