Search for MH370 will become more challenging now

The search for MH370 will enter a new and more challenging phase if it is confirmed that debris spotted by satellite in the southern Indian Ocean came from the Malaysia Airlines aircraft, experts said.

When Air France Flight AF447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, it took almost two years to find the black box and the bulk of the wreckage.

Mr Michael Daniel, a retired United States Federal Aviation Administration official, told The Straits Times on Thursday: "As time passes - and it has been 12 days since MH370 went missing - it becomes more challenging because the debris field would have expanded due to the ocean currents and wind."

When the Air France plane went down, the first signs of debris were located within five days.

That the search for MH370 is being conducted in one of the most remote parts of the world - the vast southern oceans between Australia, southern Africa and Antarctica - adds to the challenge, experts said.

Professor of Oceanography Charitha Pattiaratchi at the University of Western Australia was reported by Reuters as saying the area covers an ocean ridge known as Naturalist Plateau, a large sea shelf about 3,500m deep.

The plateau is about 250km wide by 400km long, and the area around it is close to 5,000m deep.

Close to two weeks after MH370 disappeared about 50 minutes after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, the Australian authorities said on Thursday that two large floating objects had been spotted by satellite about 2,500km south-west of Perth.

The larger piece appears to be about 24m, and the smaller, about 5m. Ships and other assets have been deployed to the area.

"If they have a strong feeling or indication that the debris belongs to the aircraft, one of the first things the authorities will do is drop sonar buoys in the water," Mr Daniel said. "If the black box is there, the buoys should be able to pick up the signals. This could take up to 48 hours, but it all depends on how near or far the ships and other assets are."

A sonar buoy is a device equipped with an acoustic receiver and a radio transmitter that emits radio signals when it detects underwater sounds.

The battery in the black box typically runs for a month.

Malaysia is prepared to move to the next phase, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news briefing last Thursday.

"If we can confirm that the debris identified this morning is the exact debris and efforts are now being made to go to that location, the next step is to actually find the black box.... So now, we are preparing for a possible operation, a multinational operation, to recover that black box."

Deep-sea searches and surveillance are already being looked into, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin said, noting that few countries have such capabilities.

If the black box is not found within 30 days, as was the case in the Air France disaster, "then we are looking at submarine technology", he said.

"And before that becomes an issue, let me tell you that the Malaysian submarines do not have that technology," he said.

Even as the search intensifies in the Indian Ocean, the latest evidence could turn out to be a false lead. The objects could be shipping containers caught in swirling currents known for creating garbage patches in the open ocean, Australian Maritime Safety Authority official John Young told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.

Mr Daniel cautioned that the authorities should not be making any announcements until they can first verify the information.

"This seems to be a continuing problem in this investigation," he said. "It is getting to a point now where all these false leads are becoming more problematic for the families and loved ones of passengers and crew."

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