Two massive vessels are about to begin searching the sea floor for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370


Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss announced new plans to search a massive area of sea floor for the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that went missing in March. (EPA/Lukas Coch)

The search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has entered a new phase with the Australian government selecting a Dutch consulting firm to conduct a deep-water operation that could take up to a year to complete.

Two massive vessels equipped with deep-water vehicles and expert personnel will cross the southern Indian Ocean, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said on Wednesday.

The vessels, which will set off in September, could cover more than 20,000 square miles. The search will cost an estimated $48 million, according to CNN, with Australia taking the lead and the Malaysian government covering an unspecified portion of the bill.

“I remain cautiously optimistic that we will locate the missing aircraft within the priority search area,” Truss said at a news conference. “This search will obviously be a challenging one. We would hope obviously to find the aircraft on the first day, but it could in fact take a year to search the entire area, and of course weather conditions will have an impact on what time will be required to complete the task.”

Friday marks the five-month anniversary of MH370′s mysterious disappearance with 239 passengers on board. The search for answers — and wreckage — has been extremely challenging, in part because so little is actually known about the ocean floor where the plane presumably crashed.

There are more accurate surveys of the surfaces of Mars and Venus than there are of that ocean floor — 250 times more accurate, actually, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported.

Survey ships more than 1,000 miles off the coast of western Australia have covered about 60 percent of the priority search area so far, and the data will be converted into maps showing depths of up to 3 miles with terrain ranging from flat slopes to underwater mountains.

The hunt has been plagued by dead-end leads, bad weather and technical problems. In March, officials moved the search area 600 miles north after a New Zealand military plane spotted potential debris. In April, an oil slick offered a glimmer of hope, but experts determined that it didn’t come from the plane.

An unmanned submarine that was sent underwater encoutered technical problems. Then, in late June, officials moved the search area 600 miles south after analyzing ping transmissions that had been captured by a satellite.

The rebooted search will be focused primarily underwater in one of the most uncharted parts of the world. The Dutch firm Fugro bested multiple contenders in the deep-sea explorer industry, including groups involved in the search for the Titanic in 1985 and the search for the Air France jetliner that crashed into the Atlantic in 2009.

RELATED:

The depth of the problem

The scale of the search for Flight MH370

What happened to Flight 370?

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 search tests limits of satellites

Elahe Izadi is a general assignment national reporter for The Washington Post.
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