TIME Aviation

Australia Says Missing Jet Is Outside Search Area

Malaysia Airline Search Area
Andrew Winning—Reuters A member of staff at satellite communications company Inmarsat, who helped analyze "pings" via satellite, works in front of a screen showing subscribers using their service throughout the world at their headquarters in London on March 25, 2014.

The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will now shift again

The Malaysia Airlines plane missing since March is outside the region of the Indian Ocean that search teams have been scouring for weeks, officials said on Thursday.

A U.S. Navy underwater vehicle had been searching the ocean floor for Flight 370 since early April, after searchers detected acoustic signals in the area that they believed to be coming from the plane’s black box. But the Australia-based joint search agency said Thursday the plane isn’t in the vicinity of those pings.

“The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has advised that the search in the vicinity of the acoustic detections can now be considered complete and in its professional judgement, the area can now be discounted as the final resting place of MH370,” the Joint Agency Coordination Centre said in a statement.

The plane bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing on March 8 with 239 people aboard, and has become the longest disappearance—and the most expensive search—in modern commercial aviation history. Transmission data suggests the plane took a sharp turn off course and landed somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The search will now move to a much wider section of the ocean, encompassing up to 23,166 square miles.

TIME Aviation

The Submarine Search for the Missing Jet Is Almost Done

U.S. Navy/Reuters Crew aboard the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield move the U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle into position for deployment in the southern Indian Ocean to look for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370, April 14, 2014.

A U.S.-made Bluefin-21 submarine has nearly finished combing the southern Indian Ocean far west of Australia where Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is thought to have crashed 48 days ago, but no wreckage from the missing plane has yet been spotted

No wreckage from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been spotted by the unmanned submarine currently scouring the Indian Ocean seabed, despite 90% of the focused search area already having been examined and a search of the remaining fraction underway.

On Thursday, Bluefin-21 was deployed around 1,000 miles northwest of Perth, but the U.S.-made submersible has found nothing of interest.

Also on Thursday, yet another possible clue got discounted, as a metal object washed ashore on Australia’s west coast was examined and deemed not from the errant jet, adding to the hundreds of erroneous items spotted by satellite, plane and ship so far.

It has now been 48 days since the Boeing 777 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

“I’m just trying to reconcile the fact that we haven’t seen anything yet, but we heard those pings,” Jules Jaffe, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, tells TIME, referring to signals believed to have come from the black box data recorders of the missing plane. “The other hypothesis is that the debris field is quite large.”

Small pieces of wreckage spread over a large area will hamper investigators attempting to fathom what prompted the 11-year-old aircraft to go tragically off-course. Other than the black box flight and voice recorders, says Michael Daniel, an international aviation-safety consultant with more than three decades experience at the FAA, the “direction of the flaps, angles and controls, will show intent on how to land the aircraft.” Such clues may not be available if the plane hit the ocean hard and splintered into many fragments.

Assuming that the remaining Bluefin search proves fruitless, investigators will have to decide how best to proceed. Four pings were heard from the depths of the southern Indian Ocean. The current focused search area forms a 10 km-radius circle around the second of these pings, which has been deemed the most promising.

The decision to be made is whether to expand the search area incrementally from this same point, move to some of the other ping locations or reevaluate the entire operation. An answer is expected early next week after discussions between Angus Houston, the 66-year-old retired Australian Air Chief Marshall currently coordinating joint search operations, the Malaysian authorities and other stakeholders.

“Where they sensed the location of the pings and the strength of the pings, they’ll use different forms of triangulation and try to isolate a more probable area,” says Daniel. “It all helps but may not give a definitive answer for where the aircraft is.”

In any case, new assets will almost certainly be brought in to assist the hunt. The Remus 6000 is one possibility — this unmanned autonomous submarine first located doomed Air France Flight 447 in over 4 km-deep water of the Pacific Ocean, and has the ability to descend 2 km farther. But towed sonar locators, such as the Orion device operated by the U.S. Navy, many prove superior, as they can operate around the clock and provide real-time imagery without the laborious resurfacing and downloading of data. Certainly, says Jaffe, “The worst idea in the world is sticking a manned submersible down there because the target is so small [compared to the search area].”

On Thursday, up to 11 military aircraft and 11 ships were on hand to continue the hunt for debris. Air operations had been curtailed earlier in the week due to Tropical Cyclone Jack, and though it has now passed by the search zone, miserable conditions continue in its wake, with torrential rain, low cloud, winds up to 35 knots and sea swells of four meters, with visibility at just one kilometer.

As the hunt for MH370 enters yet another stage, already the most costly in aviation history, one certainty is that these fruitless forays will cease very shortly.

TIME Aviation

Officials Mull Revamping Fruitless Search Efforts For Missing Jet

Leading Seaman, Boatswain's Mate, William Sharkey searching for debris in the Southern Indian Ocean on April 6, 2014.
Australian Defence Department—EPA Leading Seaman, Boatswain's Mate, William Sharkey searching for debris in the Southern Indian Ocean on April 6, 2014.

Authorities overseeing a fruitless-so-far underwater hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are mulling an overhaul of search efforts as relatives of passengers balk at the suggestion they should begin compensation negotiations without seeing evidence it actually crashed

As the Bluefin-21 unmanned submarine completed its eighth mission to look for wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on Monday, having already scoured two-thirds of the 121 sq. mi. (314 sq km) focused search area, authorities in Australia are mulling whether to adjust or roll back efforts.

The plane vanished soon after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing early on March 8 with 239 people on board, and despite an intensive air, surface, satellite and underwater search, not a single item connected with the errant Boeing 777 has so far been found.

Australia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Beazley told CNN that the multinational search team would “regroup and reconsider” if nothing is discovered on the section of the southern Indian Ocean seabed currently being scanned by U.S.-made sonar-equipped autonomous underwater drone. “You may well also consider bringing in other underwater search equipment,” he said. “All these sorts of things will be on the table if nothing is found in the next few days.”

Six weeks after the twin-engine jet disappeared, it is increasingly unlikely that any debris would still be afloat, and officials have already suggested calling off air and surface operation. “Obviously that’s one of the things you’re going to consider,” said Beazley.

Officials believe the 11-year-old plane crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean based on analysis of data communications, although even this may be re-examined if nothing is discovered soon.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had told reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday that the fruitless weekend search was crucial. “The narrowing of the search for today and tomorrow is at a very critical juncture, so I appeal to everybody around the world to pray and pray hard that we find something to work on over the next couple of days,” he said.

Malaysia’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Hamzah Zainuddin met with relatives of passengers in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday to discuss financial assistance. But family members reacted angrily to being urged to submit a compensation plan for consideration. In a statement, they refused to discuss such matters until seeing “at least a tiny bit of concrete evidence” that the plane had in fact crashed. They also complained “not a single one” of their questions was answered during the meeting.

On Monday, up to 10 military aircraft and 11 ships took part in the ongoing search for debris from the missing aircraft across 19,300 sq. mi. (50,000 sq km) about 1,087 miles (1,750 km) northwest of Perth, Australia. But the weather forecast had conditions deteriorating, particularly in the north of the search area, as Tropical Cyclone Jack continues to move southward.

TIME exploration

The Reason We Can’t Find MH 370 Is That We’re Basically Blind

Search For Missing Flight MH370 Shifts To Underwater Mission
Handout—Getty Images Good luck finding anything with that. Bluefin-21 is craned over the side of Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 on April 14, 2014.

We can see countless millions of miles into the blackness of space, but a 3-mile depth in the ocean is testing the very limits of our technology because most of it just doesn’t work underwater

Men have played golf on the moon. Images transmitted from the surface of Mars have become utterly commonplace. The Hubble Space Telescope can see 10 billion to 15 billion light-years into the universe.

But a mere three miles under the sea? That’s a true twilight zone.

As the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 demonstrates, at that depth — minuscule compared with the vastness of space — everything is a virtual unknown. A high-tech unmanned underwater submarine, Bluefin-21, has been dispatched four times to look for wreckage from the jet, but the crushing water pressure and impenetrability of this void mean that only its most recent pair of missions were completed. Scrutinizing dust and rock particles on the Red Planet, tens of millions of miles away, is a breeze. Understanding what’s on the seafloor of our own planet is not.

About 95% of deep ocean floor remains unmapped, but that’s almost certainly where the most sought after aircraft in history is going to be found. “Our knowledge of the detailed ocean floor is very, very sparse,” Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, tells TIME.

The reason for our ignorance is simple. Virtually all modern communications technology — be it light, radio, X-rays, wi-fi — is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which seawater just loves to suck up. “The only thing that does travel [underwater] is sound,” says van Sebille, “and that’s why we have to use sonar.”

Sound is formed by mechanical waves and so can penetrate denser mediums like liquids: but at a 3-mile (5 km) depth, even sonar starts to have problems establishing basic parameters. The waters in which the search for MH 370 is happening, for example, were thought to be between 13,800 and 14,400 ft. (4,200 and 4,400 m) deep, because that’s what it said on the charts that had been drawn up over time by passing ships with sonar capabilities. It turns out those seas are at least 14,800 ft. (4,500 m) deep. We only know that now because that’s the depth at which Bluefin-21 will automatically resurface — as it did on its maiden foray — when onboard sensors tell it that it’s way, way out of its operating depth. The problems with Bluefin-21, van Sebille says, show us that “even our best maps are really not good here.”

The other issue affecting visibility is the sheer volume of junk in the ocean. About 5.25 trillion particles of plastic trash presently billow around the planet, say experts, weighing half a million tons. There are five huge garbage patches in the world’s seas, where the swirling of currents makes the mostly plastic debris accumulate. The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre measuring an estimated 270,000 to 5.8 million sq. mi. (700,000 to 15 million sq km). This refuse gets ingested by plankton, fish, birds and larger marine mammals, imperiling our entire ecosystem.

Flotsam debris has already impeded the hunt for MH 370. Hundreds of suspicious items spotted by satellite have sent aircraft and ships on hugely costly detours to investigate what turned out to be trash. (On Friday an air-and-surface search continued, with 12 aircraft and 11 ships scouring an area of some 20,000 sq. mi. [52,000 sq km] about 1,200 miles [2,000 km] northwest of Perth.) Officials are saying that such efforts are becoming futile.

For all we know, Bluefin-21 could also be confused by the sheer volume of garbage down there. According to a study by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute published last June, based on 8,000 hours of underwater video, an unbelievable quantity of waste is strewn across the ocean floor. A third of the debris is thought to be plastic — bags, bottles, pellets, crates — but there is a vast amount of metal trash as well, including many of the 10,000 shipping containers estimated to be lost each year.

“I was surprised that we saw so much trash in deeper water,” said Kyra Schlining, lead author on the study. “We don’t usually think of our daily activities as affecting life two miles deep in the ocean.”

That’s because we can’t see it. It’s tempting to say that MH 370 might as well have vanished into space — only if it had, we’d have found it by now.

TIME Aviation

Jet Hunt Submarine Scours the Depths

The Bluefin 21
U.S. Navy/Reuters Bluefin-21 is hoisted back on board the Australian navy ship Ocean Shield. Its search on Monday had to be aborted after six hours because it encountered water depth beyond its operating limits

Bluefin-21 returned to the ocean after a 16-hour mission in the search for Flight MH370 wreckage was cut short when the sub sailed too deep

Updated 11:23 a.m. EST

The unmanned submarine hunting for wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 started its second mission on Tuesday after it was forced to abort its first foray to the depths of the southern Indian Ocean after just six hours on Monday.

“After completing around six hours of its mission, Bluefin-21 exceeded its operating depth limit of 4,500 meters and its built-in safety feature returned it to the surface,” read a statement from Australia’s search coordination agency. On Tuesday, the crew tweaked the search zone so that Bluefin would steer clear from the deepest water.

Bluefin-21 was deployed Monday evening after investigators looking for the missing Boeing 777 came to the conclusion that the jet’s black-box batteries had finally expired, thus rendering them incapable of emitting signals that could be detected on the surface.

The Malaysia Airlines aircraft disappeared on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board and is presumed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean 1,550 km (960 miles) northwest of Perth.

The unmanned Bluefin-21 was supposed to scour the seabed for some 16 hours before returning to the surface, but the seabed where the plane is thought to have entered the water lies 4.5 km (2.8 miles) deep, at which point the water pressure impinges on the submarine’s functionality.

U.S. Navy Captain Mark Matthews told CNN the vehicle was programmed to hover 30 m (100 ft.) over the bottom while scanning with sonar, but the water may in fact have been deeper than the maximum of 4,400 m (14,400 ft.) listed on ocean charts.

“It happened in the very far corner of the area it’s searching,” he said. “So they are just shifting the search box a little bit away from that deep water.”

Data from the U.S-made device was analyzed on the surface Tuesday, but nothing of interest was uncovered, and operators prepared to launch a second mission to the deep.

“Maybe some areas where they are doing the survey are a little bit deeper than they are expecting,” Stefan Williams, a professor of marine robotics at the University of Sydney, told the Associated Press. “They may not have very reliable prior data for the area, so they have a general idea. But there may be some variability on the sea floor that they also can’t see from the surface.”

On Monday, officials confirmed that the cell phone of co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid made contact with a telecoms tower in Malaysia about the same time that the plane disappeared from radar. However, there is no indication that any communication was attempted.

On Tuesday, airplanes and vessels combed some 62,000 sq km (24,000 sq. mi.) of ocean — an area roughly the size of West Virginia — around 2,200 km (1,350 miles) northwest of Perth in search of debris. However, sea swells up to 2 m (6.5 ft.), scattered showers and thunderstorms hampered efforts. Thirty-nine days after the twin-engine jet disappeared, no wreckage has been found, and investigators have indicated they are close to calling off the airborne search, already the most expensive in history.

This post was updated to reflect that the search was continued on Tuesday.

TIME Aviation

A Submarine Has Taken Over the Missing-Jet Hunt

Angus Houston, who's leading the hunt for Flight MH370, said the search team deployed an unmanned submarine to spot wreckage on the Indian Ocean floor after no pings were detected for six days, raising speculation the black-box recorder is out of juice

The hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 moved underwater Monday, as investigators halted the use of towed pinger locators to find the doomed Boeing 777’s black boxes, and instead deployed an unmanned submarine in a bid to find wreckage on the ocean floor far off Australia’s west coast.

“We haven’t had a single detection in six days so I guess it’s time to go underwater,” Angus Houston, who is in charge of joint search efforts, told reporters in Perth. “I emphasize this will be a slow and painstaking process.”

MH370 vanished soon after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing early March 8, and subsequent data transmissions indicate it may have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean with all 239 passengers and crew members presumed lost.

Four pings, possibly from the 11-year-old jetliner’s flight recorders, have been detected in a 10-by-24-km (6 by 15 miles) triangle some 1,500 km (950 miles) northwest of Perth. But the devices’ batteries only have a typical life span of 30 days, and as Monday marked Day 38 since the plane disappeared, investigators believe it is now futile to hope for additional signals.

From Monday evening, a Bluefin-21 unmanned underwater vehicle will snake backward and forward on the ocean floor using side-scan sonar to search for wreckage. The submarine will operate on a 24-hour continuous cycle — taking two hours to reach the ocean floor, 16 hours to comb 40 sq km (15 sq. mi.), two hours to return to the surface and then four hours to download and analyze collected data.

Waters are believed to be around 4.5 km (2.8 miles) deep at the search zone, putting them at the limit of Bluefin-21’s operating capacity. Nevertheless, the submarine, operated from the Australian navy vessel Ocean Shield, is the only such asset currently available and, said Houston, “more than adequate to the task.”

“Most of the search area is on the right side of 4,500 m for the operation of the vehicle,” he said. “There are vehicles that can go a lot deeper than that. Those sorts of possibilities are being looked at as we speak.”

Although the ocean floor where Bluefin-21 is operating was described as rolling rather than mountainous, it is apparently covered with a thick layer of silt, which may complicate search efforts. The British navy’s H.M.S. Echo is currently providing high-tech oceanographic assistance to Ocean Shield in the vicinity. “This is an area which is new,” Houston said.

Up to 11 military aircraft, one civil aircraft and 15 ships helped search some 48,000 sq km (18,500 sq. mi.) of ocean — around twice the size of Vermont — on Monday for floating debris from MH370. But the air and surface operation, which is already the most expensive in aviation history, will be wrapped up in the next three days, near where the aircraft is presumed to have entered the water.

“The chances of any floating material being recovered have greatly diminished, and it would be appropriate to consult with Australia’s partners to decide the way ahead later this week,” said Houston.

On Sunday evening, an oil slick was discovered by Ocean Shield around 5.5 km (3.5 miles) downwind from the pinger-locator detections. A sample will be analyzed for traces of jet fuel once it can be taken ashore, but this may take several days.

“I would not term it a long shot,” said Houston. “I would determine it as a promising lead that needs to be [investigated] until we can either confirm or discount.”

TIME Aviation

Cloudy Outlook for Pings Detected in Jet Search

Richard Wainwright—Reuters Co-Pilot Flying Officer Marc Smith (L) and crewmen fly at high altitude aboard a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion aircraft after searching for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean March 24, 2014.

Mixed messages were just the latest confusion in a massive search effort that has yielded more false starts and false hopes than solid clues about what happened to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Updated 7:06 a.m. ET

The Australian leader said Friday that he’s “very confident” signals detected in the southern Indian Ocean are coming from the black-box data recorders of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, but an official heading the search quickly distanced himself from those remarks, adding even more uncertainty to the prospects for an international hunt that has lasted more than a month.

“[The search has] been very much narrowed down because we’ve now had a series of detections, some for quite a long period of time,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said. “Nevertheless, we’re getting to the stage where the signal from what we are very confident is the black box is starting to fade. We are hoping to get as much information as we can before the signal finally expires.”

Just minutes later, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston cautioned: “There has been no major breakthrough in the search for MH370.”

The mixed messages were just the latest confusion in a massive search effort that has yielded more false starts and false hopes than solid clues about what happened to the Boeing 777 when it vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

Abbott was speaking to reporters during a state visit to China, where he was set to meet with Premier Li Keqiang. Two-thirds of the 227 passengers aboard the missing plane were Chinese citizens.

The aircraft’s flight-data and voice recorders’ beacons are four days past their 30-day standard battery lifetime, but they still offer the best chance of finding the wreckage, and of explaining why the twin-engine, 200-ton jetliner went so tragically off course.

While Abbot’s comments seemed to indicate a breakthrough, investigators on Friday revealed that a fifth possible ping—on top of two received over the weekend and another pair on Tuesday—was not consistent with a black box.

“The Australian Joint Acoustic Analysis Centre has analyzed the acoustic data and confirmed that the signal reported in the vicinity of the Australian defense vessel Ocean Shield is unlikely to be related to the aircraft black boxes,” Houston said.

The erroneous signal was heard Thursday by one of up to 84 underwater sonar systems known as sonobuoys that were dropped into the ocean by a modified Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion surveillance plane.

More sonobuoys were to be deployed Friday, but experts have questioned how valuable they could possibly be. Special microphones are dangled 1,000 ft. (one-fifth of a mile) below the surface, and the device has a maximum range of some 2.5 miles. Given that the ocean is thought to be around 2.8 miles deep, the buoy would have to be positioned directly above the aircraft’s wreckage to detect anything. In addition, the black boxes’ batteries would need to be operating on full power, which is now extremely unlikely.

Most crucially for the ongoing investigation, no debris confirmed from the plane has been found despite more than 150 missions undertaken — helping to make this is the most expensive search and rescue operation in aviation history.

“It’s not absolute by any means,” David Newbery, an aircraft-accident investigator, tells TIME. “It looks pretty compelling, but as an accident investigator, you tend to get a little bit wary about everything — nothing is proven until you’ve got it in your hand.”

On Friday, British navy ship HMS Echo arrived in the supposed vicinity of the black box to help map the ocean floor with high tech sonar equipment.

“My ship’s company are working 24/7 to find MH370,” said Commander Phillip Newell. “They are young, bright and enthusiastic and will step up to every challenge in the search for the missing aircraft.”

The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur early on March 8, but disappeared from radar after about an hour and apparently crashed in the Indian Ocean. There is little hope that anyone survived.

TIME Aviation

The Search Zone for the Missing Jet Is Narrowing

Scott Eisen—AP A submarine built by Bluefin Robotics is lowered into the water by a systems engineer in Quincy, Mass., April 9, 2014

Investigators have dropped underwater sonar equipment in the Indian Ocean to again detect the pings thought to come from the plane's black box. Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search, has expressed optimism in what they'll find

The search zone for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is now at its most focused yet, as investigators continue to express hope that the hunt for the Boeing 777’s wreckage may soon be at an end, while admitting that serious challenges remain.

Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search in distant waters off Australia’s west coast, said Wednesday that he was “optimistic” that the wreckage would be found “in a matter of days,” and Thursday saw underwater sonar systems known as sonobuoys deployed in an attempt to collect more signals from the doomed aircraft’s black boxes.

“We are still a long way to go, but things are more positive than they were some time ago,” Australian Transport Safety Board chief Martin Dolan told Reuters on Thursday.

Two signals were heard by Australian navy vessel Ocean Shield Tuesday — for five minutes and 32 seconds, and then for around seven minutes — on top of two detections over the weekend.

Now a modified Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion surveillance plane is deploying up to 84 sonobuoys that can transmit data to search aircraft via radio.

“What we want to do is maximize the time that may still be left on those black box batteries so we will keep searching with the towed pinger locator,” Commander Mark Williams, of the U.S 7th Fleet, which is assisting efforts, told CNN.

“We’ve done an incredible job decreasing the search area to a pretty small, defined area. But with a side-scan sonar, which works pretty slowly and methodically, it’s still pretty big.”

If the batteries fail before the black box recorders are located — and they are already three days past their 30-day standard lifespan — finding the wreckage in water 2.8 miles (4,500 km) deep becomes much more arduous.

On Thursday the search for visible debris continued on an area narrowed to 22,000 sq miles (58,000 sq km) — slightly smaller than West Virginia — with up to 10 military aircraft, four civil aircraft and 13 ships operating about 1,400 miles (2,280 km) northwest of Perth.

Aircraft and ships reported spotting a large number of objects during Wednesday’s search, but only a small number were recoverable, and none confirmed to be from MH370.

Until wreckage is found, there can be no closure for families of the 239 passengers and crew. “Things look promising but it’s nowhere near the end until we find a bit of the airplane,” David Newbery, an aircraft accident investigator, tells TIME.

Some have speculated that the lack of wreckage may indicate the plane could remain relatively intact, although Newbery believes this more to do with unpredictable currents and not knowing where to look.

“Hitting water in an airplane is like hitting concrete, so if it was a controlled ditching it is conceivable that not many bits fell off,” he says, “but anything other than that and there’s inevitably going to be wreckage.”

MH370 vanished soon after departing Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early March 8 and investigators still have no idea why it flew so drastically off-course to apparently crash in the southern Indian Ocean.

TIME Aviation

Official: Missing Jet Could Be Found Within ‘A Matter Of Days’

Paul Kane—Getty Images RAAF P3 Orion captain Flt Lt Benn Carroll speaks to reporters after returning from a search mission for debris from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at RAAF Base Pearce on April 8, 2014 in Perth, Australia.

Authorities attempting to locate Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean last month, say new pings heard Tuesday may originate from the plane's black box that officials worry is about to run out of battery life

Two more underwater signals that may have emanated from the black boxes of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were heard Tuesday, prompting the Australian official in charge of the search to say the missing Boeing 777 may be discovered within “a matter of days”

“I’m now optimistic that we will find the aircraft, or what is left of the aircraft, in the not-too-distant future,” Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search, said at a news conference in Perth. “Hopefully in a matter of days, we will be able to find something on the bottom that might confirm that this is the last resting place of MH370.”

The Australian vessel Ocean Shield originally picked up two signals over the weekend, and the new transmissions were now considerably weaker, said Houston, indicating that the beacons’ batteries may now be close to exhausted. Analysis showed “the transmission was not of natural origin and was likely sourced from specific electronic equipment.”

MH370 vanished soon after departing Kuala Lumpur for Bejing early March 8, and investigators now believe the 11-year-old aircraft crashed in the southern Indian Ocean some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) northwest of Perth. All 239 passengers and crew are presumed dead.

Despite the growing body of evidence, Houston insists that no crash site can be confirmed before wreckage has been positively identified. The beacons’ batteries have already surpassed their 30-day expected life, heaping pressure on search efforts.

Investigators currently have the pings pinned down to a 12-mile (20 km) radius, but hope to narrow this further through trawling, as it generally takes six times as long to search with the Bluefin autonomous underwater vehicle than it does with towed pinger locators. If the noises can be narrowed down, an unmanned submarine may soon be deployed to locate wreckage from the missing Boeing 777.

Some 11 military aircraft, four civil aircraft and 14 ships assisted in Wednesday’s search for debris across 29,000 sq miles (75,000 square km) of ocean — an expanse slightly smaller than South Carolina — located about 1,350 miles (2,200 km) northwest of Perth.

TIME Aviation

Submarine Hunt on Hold Until Fresh Pings Received From Missing Jet

China Malaysia Plane
Andy Wong—AP A woman cries as she and others attend a vigil for their loved ones, who were on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, at a hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014

Investigators say they'll spend several days aiming to narrow the potential search zone for Flight 370’s black box before deploying an unmanned submarine as the world observes the one-month mark since the Malaysia Airlines plane went missing

No further signals have been detected from the southern Indian Ocean, where Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is thought to have crashed, but ships will continue to scour the area for several days as investigators attempt to narrow any potential submarine search area for the aircraft’s black box.

Australian vessel Ocean Shield detected two signals over the weekend — one lasting for two hours, 20 minutes and another for 13 minutes — but has been unable to do so since. The batteries of the flight-and-data recorders’ beacons only last for around 30 days, and Tuesday marks Day 32 since the jet’s disappearance.

Nevertheless, sweeps would continue until investigators have “absolutely no doubt that the pinger batteries will have expired,” Angus Houston, head of the Australian agency coordinating the search, told reporters at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Base Pearce near Perth on Tuesday, describing “very slow, painstaking work.”

“If we can get more transmissions we can get a better fix on the ocean floor, which will enable a much more narrowly focused visual search for wreckage,” he said, adding that to perform such work with current data would take “many, many, many days.” The ocean is around 2.8 miles (4.5 km) deep at the search zone — or the height of 12 Empire State Buildings.

Fourteen aircraft, 14 ships and several helicopters set out on Tuesday to scour some 30,000 sq. miles (77,700 sq km) of ocean — roughly the size of South Carolina — for wreckage from the twin-engine, 200-ton jetliner, despite nothing being discovered from 133 previous missions.

MH 370 vanished shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing at 12:41 a.m. on March 8. Analysis of data pings indicates the aircraft performed a U-turn over the Malay Peninsula before turning south toward the Indian Ocean, skirting the airspace of Indonesia and possibly running out of fuel some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) northwest of Perth.

“This is the most positive lead we’ve had, and we are pursuing it aggressively,” Australian Defense Minister David Johnston told reporters on Tuesday. “We’ve been doing calculations from [British satellite firm] Inmarsat that have never been done before.”

While black boxes are supposed to transmit signals of 37.5 Hz, those received by the Ocean Shield were distinctly lower than this. However, water pressure at excessive depths combined with a depleted power supply could account for this discrepancy, say officials.

On Monday evening, family members of those aboard the doomed flight conducted a prayer vigil in Beijing. Of the 227 passengers, 153 were Chinese nationals.

“Don’t cry anymore. Don’t hurt anymore. Don’t despair. Don’t feel lost,” said Steve Wang, one of the relatives in attendance.

Remarkably, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had earlier suggested that some passengers might still be alive. “Miracles do happen,” he told a media briefing in Kuala Lumpur. “We continue to hope and pray for survivors. We are just hoping against hope.”

This contradicts a message from Malaysia Airlines sent to relatives two weeks ago via text message. “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH 370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived,” the carrier said.

According to Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, “the chance of getting a plane down in the Southern Ocean is about zero.”

He points out that U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which performed an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009, still had its engines ripped off despite it being a calm day with ideal weather conditions, tranquil water and little wind.

“In very perfect conditions people can get out,” Middleton tells TIME. But with MH 370, “you’re talking about night, gnarly waves several meters big and strong winds. They are going to be hypothermia in six hours, drowned in eight. I don’t see any real chance that there would be any survivors.”

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