Even as Malaysia announces that the search for MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew will end in two weeks, surprise reports have emerged of a sudden change of tack, with the main search vessel heading at full speed into an area recently identified as far more likely to contain the remains of the doomed flight.
The Dutch-owned search vessel MV Fugro Equator has reportedly headed north, entering in an area where the seabed has not been previously mapped. MV Fugro Equator is equipped with an autonomous underwater search vehicle (AUV).
The change of mission was detected by Dr. Richard Cole, of University College, London. Cole, who has been following the search operation for months via satellite tracking, disclosed the sudden shift in operations to the New York-based Daily Beast news publication.
Cole said that MV Fugro Equator had been searching an area that has been scanned twice before – in an initial search and once more last September, after data from the first search suggested that this should be an area of priority.
Investigators recommended last month the hunt be extended by 25,000 square kilometres into an area further north in the Indian Ocean. They admitted for the first time they had probably been searching the wrong place. Experts now believe that the most likely site of the missing B777 is further north of the original area, between latitudes 32 to 36 degrees south.
Australia’s Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) expects MV Fugro Equator’s search operations to be completed by the end of January.
The ATSB admits that the immense expanse of ocean bed that has already been searched for 27 months is now considered unlikely to contain the remains of the jet.
More than 20 pieces of debris believed to be from the B777 have washed up on beaches in the western Indian Ocean over the months.
Two years, 10 months and three days have passed since MH370 vanished from radar on 8 March 2014. More than AUD 150 million has been spent on searching for the missing plane and although relatives insist the effort should continue, the pressure is on to wind it up. It is expected that the underwater search may cost around AUD 200 million. Australia has provided about AUD 90 million.
Malaysia’s Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said the search of a 120,000-square-kilometre area, where experts believe the plane went down, would be completed but the hunt would then end in the absence of any “credible clue”.
The latest report by the ATSB was due to be completed in a week or two, Liow said.
“The search mission will end soon and after that,” he was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama.
Written by Peter Needham