INVESTIGATORS were last night analysing data collected by a robotic submarine that scanned the seabed in the hunt for the missing Malaysian Flight 370, but initial tests have ruled out the possibility that a nearby oil slick came from the aircraft.
The unmanned sub’s first two missions were cut short by technical problems and deep water, but the Bluefin 21 finally managed to complete a full 16-hour scan of the silt-covered seabed far off Australia’s west coast, the search co-ordination centre said.
While data collected during the mission, which ended on Wednesday night, was being analysed yesterday, nothing of note had yet been discovered.
The sub has now covered 35 square miles of sea floor.
Officials said the oil analysis done in Perth, Western Australia, came up empty when the samples tested negative for aircraft oil or hydraulic fluid.
In addition to finding the plane itself, investigators want to recover the black boxes in hopes the cockpit voice and flight data recorders can explain why the plane lost communications and flew so far off-course.
The oil was collected earlier this week from a slick about 5.5 kilometres (3.4 miles) from the area where equipment picked up underwater sounds consistent with an aircraft black box.It was hoped the oil would be evidence that officials are looking in the right place for Flight 370, which vanished on 8 March en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China.
Searchers have yet to find any physical proof that the sounds that led them to the ocean floor where the Bluefin has been deployed are from the ill-fated jet.
Twelve planes and 11 ships are scouring a 40,300sq km (15,600sq m) patch of sea for any debris that may be floating on the ocean surface, about 2,200km northwest of Perth.
Despite weeks of looking, no debris related to the jet has been found and this week search leader Angus Houston said the surface hunt would end within days. However, the search co-ordination centre yesterday said crews would continue searching into next week.
Malaysia’s defence minister Hishamuddin Hussein confirmed the search would continue through the Easter weekend, but acknowledged that officials would have to rethink their strategy if nothing is found.
“There will come a time when we need to regroup and reconsider, but in any event, the search will always continue. It’s just a matter of approach,” he told a news conference.
Radar and satellite data show the Boeing 777 flew far off-course for an unknown reason and would have run out of fuel in a desolate patch of the Indian Ocean.
A ship-towed device detected four underwater signals that are believed to have come from the plane’s black boxes shortly before the batteries powering the beacons were likely to have died.
The sounds helped narrow the search area to the waters where the Bluefin is now operating.
The US Navy’s unmanned sub cut short its first mission on Monday because it exceeded its maximum operating depth of 4,500 metres. Searchers moved it away from the deepest waters before redeploying the sub to scan the seabed with sonar to map a potential debris field.
But the centre said yesterday that officials are now confident the sub can safely go deeper than was thought, allowing it to cover the entire search area, which has been narrowed based on further analysis of the four underwater signals.