PERTH, Australia — Equipment on a ship searching for the missing Malaysian Airlines jet has relocated an underwater signal that is consistent with a plane’s black boxes, an Australian official said Wednesday.
Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search in the southern Indian Ocean, said the Australian navy’s Ocean Shield has picked up two more underwater signals that could be from Flight 370.
The Ocean Shield first detected the sounds late Saturday and early Sunday before losing them, and Houston said the ship relocated the signals twice on Tuesday.
The ship is equipped with a U.S. Navy towed pinger locator that is designed to pick up signals from a plane’s black boxes.
Finding the sound again is crucial to narrowing the search area so a submarine can be deployed to chart a potential debris field on the seafloor. If the autonomous sub was used now with the sparse data collected so far, covering all the potential places from which the pings might have come would take many days.
“It’s literally crawling at the bottom of the ocean so it’s going to take a long, long time,” Houston said Tuesday.
The locator beacons on the black boxes have a battery life of about a month — and Tuesday marked exactly one month since the plane vanished. Once the beacons blink off, locating the black boxes in such deep water would be an immensely difficult, if not impossible, task.
“We need to continue (searching) for several days right up to the point at which there’s absolutely no doubt that the batteries will have expired,” Houston said.
If, by that point, the U.S. Navy towed pinger locator has failed to pick up more signals, the sub will be deployed. If it maps out a debris field on the ocean floor, the sonar system on board will be replaced with a camera unit to photograph any wreckage.
Earlier, Australia’s acting prime minister, Warren Truss, had said that the Bluefin 21 autonomous sub would be launched Tuesday, but a spokesman for Truss said later that the conflicting information was a misunderstanding, and Truss acknowledged that the sub was not being used immediately.
Houston had said that the two sounds heard Saturday and Sunday are consistent with the pings from an aircraft’s black boxes.
Defense Minister David Johnston called the sounds the most positive lead to date and that it was being pursued vigorously. Still, officials warned that it could take days to determine whether the sounds were connected to the plane that vanished March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 on board.
“This is a herculean task — it’s over a very, very wide area, the water is extremely deep,” Johnston said. “We have at least several days of intense action ahead of us.”
Houston also warned of past false leads — such as ships detecting their own signals. Because of that, other ships are being kept away so as not to add unwanted noise.
“We’re very hopeful we will find further evidence that will confirm the aircraft is in that location,” Houston said. “There’s still a little bit of doubt there, but I’m a lot more optimistic than I was one week ago.”
Such optimism was overshadowed by anguish at a hotel in Beijing where about 300 relatives of the flight’s passengers — most of whom were Chinese — wait for information about the plane’s fate.
One family lit candles on a heart-shaped cake to mark what would have been the 21st birthday of passenger Feng Dong, who had been working in construction in Singapore for the past year and was flying home to China via Kuala Lumpur. Feng’s mother wept as she blew out the candles.
A family member of another passenger said staying together allowed the relatives to support one another through the ordeal. “If we go back to our homes now, it will be extremely painful,” said Steve Wang. “We have to face a bigger pain of facing uncertainty, the unknown future. This is the most difficult to cope with.”