Six months later: MH370 search comes up short, but unlocks scientific secrets

Brisbane, Australia

In the six months of searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, investigators haven’t found a trace of the Boeing 777, but they have made groundbreaking scientific discoveries that could provide new insight into the ocean and the world.

The search for the plane carrying 239 people will resume by September 22, according to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the agency in charge of the search. It will focus on a massive priority search area more than 23,000 square miles large, far off the coast of western Australia in the southern Indian Ocean and potentially up to four miles deep.

Charting the unknown

The initial search in the same vast ocean area didn’t turn up anything. But sonar, radar and satellite data from the weeks of work have helped scientists discovers parts of the remote ocean floor never before known.

“We’ve already found seamounts and volcanoes that were unknown and uncharted,” according to Dr. Stuart Minchin, with Geoscience Australia, the federal agency charged with analyzing and interpreting data from the search.

The deep-sea mountains, ridges, cliffs and fault lines found during the search could be helpful in predicting tsunamis, forecasting ocean currents, and better understanding how continents formed and the world evolved, according to Minchin.

The massive multi-national effort has now evolved into an unprecedented science mission.

“It’s very unusual to survey such a large area, and particularly because it’s quite a way from the Australian coast.”

The results could be helpful to scientists for years following the search.

“There will be many scientists around the world interested in this information because it is of a very unknown part of the ocean, and it is going to be a unique data set for this part of the world,” Minchin said.

Geoscience Australia says it will make all data from the mission public for future research and scientific analysis, once the search for the missing plane is complete.

Right now this initial data is instrumental in preparations for more aggressive search work scheduled for later this month.

“The key thing we’ll be doing is towing highly expensive and complicated sonar equipment close to the sea floor to detect the wreckage field for the aircraft,” ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan said. “We need very good mapping information because if we’re towing a $2 million piece of technology close to the sea floor we don’t want unexpected clips on mountains.”

Investigators will also deploy sensors used in offshore oil and gas production to ‘sniff’ fuel from MH370 wreckage—all equipment vulnerable to deep-sea collisions.

Sonar data have also located other ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ objects in the search area, which officials will investigate further.

New analysis

Beyond ocean floor discoveries, scientists have also made new strides in analyzing data exchanges between the missing airliner and satellites to determine the search area.

“Those so-called ‘handshakes’ offer two pieces of information,” Dolan said. “We know from the analysis of that signal where the aircraft ran out of fuel … and what direction the aircraft was moving and how fast it was moving.”

It’s part of a complex data analysis of satellite communications, but it’s expected to help searchers narrow down where to look for wreckage.

“We need to run it through various models, which has really never been done before, certainly not for this purpose,” Dolan said.

Despite early data analysis and a refined search area, the massive undertaking remains challenging, along with estimates from the ATSB the aircraft could’ve taken more than 1000 flight paths from when it departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport originally headed to Beijing.

Regardless, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he remains committed to the search and investing in new technology to aid in the mission.

“It will utilize the best available technology,” Abbott said at a press conference Sept. 6, with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. “It will last as long as it needs to, to thoroughly scour the seabed of the probable impact zone and Malaysia and Australia will be contributing $60 million each which is roughly half each of the estimated total cost.”

But it could be an even more costly, time-consuming endeavor. Authorities warn the search could take up to a year with no guarantees the plane may ever be found.