Hopes that Malaysia’s missing jet might soon be found are yielding to the sobering realisation of the immense challenge of searching an uncharted seafloor at depths that push deep-sea technology to its limits.
“I have compared it to sending a man to the moon. We know how to do it, but we can’t just do it in three weeks,” said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales.
Twice in two days, an advanced US Navy mini-submarine has had to abort its search of the remote Indian Ocean for wreckage from the Boeing 777, which vanished on March 8.
The unmanned Bluefin-21 bounced back to the surface on Tuesday after hitting its maximum depth of 4,500 metres (15,000 feet), and Wednesday’s search was cut short due to technical trouble.
The hitches have raised the spectre of a prolonged, difficult search that may require even more sophisticated equipment to be deployed.
For nearly a month, the search effort has focused on a vast and lonely stretch of ocean where the Malaysia Airlines jet is believed to have crashed after inexplicably veering far from its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight path.
Underwater signals detected in the last ten days – thought to be from the plane’s “black box” – raised hopes that wreckage could soon be found.
But these beacons, with a normal lifespan of around 30 days, have since gone silent – forcing investigators to look below the surface in a targeted area encompassing 40 square kilometres.
In a dark, extremely deep and little-known seascape far off Western Australia, it is a daunting prospect, experts say.