By Rod McGuirk , AP
CANBERRA, Australia–Australia’s prime minister said Wednesday that failure to find any clue in the most likely crash site of the lost Malaysia Airlines jet would not spell the end of the search, as officials planned soon to bring in more powerful sonar equipment that can delve deeper beneath the Indian Ocean.
The search coordination center said Wednesday a robotic submarine, the U.S. Navy’s Bluefin 21, had scanned more than 80 percent of the 310-square-kilometer (120-square-mile) seabed search zone off the Australian west coast, creating a three-dimensional sonar map of the ocean floor. Nothing of interest had been found.
The 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) deep search area is a circle 20 kilometers (12 miles) wide around an area where sonar equipment picked up a signal on April 8 consistent with a plane’s black boxes. But the batteries powering those signals are now dead.
Defense Minister David Johnston said Australia was consulting with Malaysia, China and the United States on the next phase of the search for the plane that disappeared March 8, which is likely to be announced next week.
Johnston said more powerful towed side-scan commercial sonar equipment would probably be deployed, similar to the remote-controlled subs that found RMS Titanic 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) under the Atlantic Ocean in 1985 and the Australian WWII wreck HMAS Sydney in the Indian Ocean off the Australian coast, north of the current search area, in 2008.
“The next phase, I think, is that we step up with potentially a more powerful, more capable side-scan sonar to do deeper water,” Johnston told The Associated Press.
While the Bluefin had less than one-fifth of the seabed search area to complete, Johnston estimated that task would take another two weeks.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the airliner’s probable impact zone was 700 kilometers (430 miles) long and 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide. A new search strategy would be adopted if nothing was found in the current seabed search zone.
“If at the end of that period we find nothing, we are not going to abandon the search, we may well rethink the search, but we will not rest until we have done everything we can to solve this mystery,” Abbott told reporters.
“We owe it to the families of the 239 people on board, we owe it to the hundreds of millions — indeed billions — of people who travel by air to try to get to the bottom of this. The only way we can get to the bottom of this is to keep searching the probable impact zone until we find something or until we have searched it as thoroughly as human ingenuity allows at this time,” he said.
The focus of the next search phase will be decided by continuing analysis of information including flight data and sound detections of the suspected beacons, Johnston said.
“A lot of this seabed has not even been hydrographically surveyed before — some of it has — but we’re flying blind,” he said, adding that the seabed in the vicinity of the search was up to 7 kilometers (4 miles) deep.
The search center said an air search involving 10 planes was suspended for a second day because of heavy seas and poor visibility.
But 12 ships would join Wednesday’s search of an expanse covering 38,000 square kilometers (14,500 square miles), centered 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) northwest of the city of Perth.
Radar and satellite data show the jet carrying 239 passengers and crew veered far off course on March 8 for unknown reasons during its flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. Analysis indicates it would have run out of fuel in the remote section of ocean where the search has been focused. Not one piece of debris has been found since the massive multinational hunt began.