CANBERRA, Australia – A sprawling undersea search area for a missing Malaysian airliner in the southern Indian Ocean could be extended farther south based on new satellite analysis, only weeks before the multimillion dollar, yearlong sonar hunt for wreckage is due to begin, officials said Thursday.
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said analysis of a failed attempted satellite phone call from Malaysia Airlines to Flight 370 "suggests to us that the aircraft might have turned south a little earlier than we had previously expected."
The Boeing 777 disappeared off radar after veering off its northerly course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, and is thought to have crashed 1,100 miles off Australia's west coast.
The overall search area remained unchanged, Truss said. However, Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief commissioner Martin Dolan said he would meet with international experts next week to decide whether the 23,000 square mile targeted search area should be extended or shifted farther south based on the new analysis.
"We think we may extend that area farther south; that's the thing we're currently considering," Dolan told The Associated Press.
The new analysis applies to satellite data from the first of two satellite phone calls Malaysia Airlines ground staff attempted to make to Flight 370's crew.
By the time the calls were attempted, the plane had become invisible to civilian radar. It had flown west without communications past Sumatra and beyond the range of Malaysian military radar.
Dolan said the new analysis suggested the jet was already flying south when the first phone call was attempted less than 20 minutes after the plane dropped off military radar.
"Previously, there was the possibility that it could have been quite a bit later, so we had to do our modeling based on a range of possibilities as to where the aircraft turned," Dolan said.
"We're now more confident that it turned comparatively early. That does make a difference to how we prioritize the search along the 7th arc," he added, referring to the 23,000 square mile area where satellite information from a jet engine transmitter suggests the plane ran out of fuel and crashed.
Investigators have long been aware of the phone call. But they have only recently adapted analysis methodology to glean clues to the plane's direction from the satellite phone data.
The analysis adds weight to an Australian Transport Safety Bureau crash investigation report in June in which most of the modeling of the plane's potential flight paths factored in a relatively early switch to a southerly course.
Investigators are currently attempting to calculate precisely where they should start their search, and an order of priority for other potential crash sites to be examined within the wider area.
The current search area covers a swath of ocean 435 miles long and 50 miles wide. An initial search of 330 square miles of seabed to the north ended with officials concluding that they were focusing their efforts in the wrong place.
Truss and Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai signed an agreement Thursday sharing the ongoing costs between the two countries as the search progresses to the expensive next phase, which could take up to a year and cost $48 million.
Until now, each country involved in the search has been bearing its own costs.
In three weeks, Dutch contractor Fugro Survey Pty. Ltd. will begin the operation with three vessels towing underwater vehicles equipped with side-scan sonar, multi-beam echo sounders and video equipment, Truss said.
Liow said investigators had advised that success of the undersea search for wreckage and the aircraft's black boxes with cockpit voice recordings and flight data was crucial to solving the mystery of the disaster.
"The investigation cannot continue without the search result," Liow said.
"We need to find the plane, we need to find the black box in the plane so that we can have a conclusion in the investigation," he added.
Malaysia, as the country where the Boeing 777 was flagged, has overall responsibility for the crash investigation. But Australia has search and rescue responsibility.
Chinese Vice-Minister of Transport He Jianzhong, who also attended the Canberra meeting, said the ministers had all agreed that the search will not be interrupted or given up. Most of the passengers — 153 — were Chinese.