THE Australian Navy ship given the job of finding the black box recorder of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is preparing to leave Perth with still no clue as to the missing plane’s whereabouts.
But it could potentially have a longer window to track down the black box in the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean than had been feared.
The Ocean Shield, which leaves Perth tomorrow on an initial 30-day mission, has been fitted with US Navy equipment designed to electronically hunt for the box, including a towed pinger locator and unmanned underwater drone.
With the ship not likely to reach the search zone west of Perth for several days, it had been feared the 30-day life of the satellite “pinger’’ within the black box could expire before the equipment arrived.
But Captain Mark Matthews, the US Navy supervisor of salvage and diving, revealed today that while the pinger is certified for 30 days, it could last for up to another 15 days.
That gives authorities more precious time to find the box, which should provide crucial clues as to the fate of MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew.
“These are rated to last 30 days, but that is a minimum. In my experience they do last a little bit longer than that,’’ Capt Matthews said.
“I would say 45 days is the realistic limited expectation.’’
The towed pinger locater on the Ocean Shield has a range of 1.6km and depth capability up to 6000m, with the search set to be conducted at a speed of just 5km/h.
An unmanned underwater drone will also be on board, ready to dive once the pinger locater has found a signal to map the sea floor and photograph potential debris there.
As 10 planes and eight ships descended on the search zone on Sunday, there was still no confirmation of any debris from MH370 being found.
Captain Matthews said without solid proof of the crash, they would not be able to begin to search for the black box.
“We don’t have a defined search area yet. We have our challenges in front of us,’’ he said.
In the meantime, the crew, along with Australian and Chinese ships, would join the surface search for debris.
Also on Sunday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced former Defence Force chief Angus Houston would lead a new joint agency co-ordination centre in Perth that would communicate with all international search partners and the families of those on the missing plane.
“Should our responsibilities increase as time goes by, there is no one better placed than Angus to co-ordinate and liaise given the quite significant number of countries that all have a stake in this search,’’ Mr Abbott said.
Australian Navy Commodore Peter Leavy said the aim was still to locate debris and confirm it was from flight 370, then to work backwards to a possible crash site.
Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Ray Griggs said the best people in the field were now involved in the search.
“It is a significant co-ordination challenge which is proceeding extremely well. These are an exceptionally talented group of people,’’ Admiral Griggs said.peOcean Shield will leave the naval base at Garden Island south of Perth with enough supplies for 45 days before having to return to shore.
Flight 370 disappeared on March 8 after veering sharply off course while heading from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
‘SEARCH ZONE THE SIZE OF VICTORIA’
Recovering Flight MH370 debris from a search area the size of Victoria is “critical” to finding the black box flight recorder before its locator ping fades away, the officer in charge of the sea and air mission said.
Commodore Peter Leavy, commander of Joint Task Force 658, said the black box’s beacon locator – which emits a high frequency ping noise every second – is certified to last another nine days.
It’s hoped the battery may last “a little while longer” than April 7 — next Monday — but search crews are in a race against clock before the beacon runs flat and its signal stops.
Commodore Leavy said finding the black box, which records flight data and voices in the cockpit, was crucial to helping air crash investigators determine what caused the Malaysia Airlines aircraft to veer off course and crash in the southern Indian Ocean.
“In the circumstances that we are facing here, if the black box is recovered and the data is salvageable, I think that will be a very, very important part of the analysis of the subsequent investigation,” he said.
Commodore Leavy said the “unprecedented” multinational mission was searching an area the size of the state of Victoria in “extreme” ocean conditions.
He said it was “critical” debris from the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight was confirmed to help investigators pinpoint where the jet crashed.
Only when a location is identified, using modelling to estimate how far the debris drifted, can a US Navy device designed to find black boxes be effective.
Australian Defence patrol vessel Ocean Shield docked last night at HMAS Stirling naval base on Garden Island, south of Perth, to join the search.
It was today fitted with a Towed Ping Locator and Bluefin-21 underwater drone which uses sonar to scan the sea floor for signs of wreckage.
Ocean Shield is expected to set sail tomorrow and take two to three days to reach the search zone, 1850km west of Perth, depending on the weather.
It means the crew and air crash investigators would likely arrive at the search zone on Thursday or Friday, just three or four days before the ping is due to start fading.
The pinger locator, which has a reach of about 2km, is towed underwater at a “very slow” two to three knots (5kmp/h) and covers less than 150 square kilometres a day.
“The critical focus at this juncture is to find debris and as much of it as we can. If it is confirmed to be from the aircraft that will enable a much greater refinement of the impact point,” Commodore Leavy said.
“Having as accurate a start point as we can for our pinger search is critical.”
HMAS Toowoomba yesterday reloaded at Garden Island after it was retasked to the MH370 search from Operation Sovereign Border duties in Darwin.
Five specialist divers, as well as a Sea Hawk helicopter, joined the frigate’s 180-strong crew to search for floating debris. HMAS Toowoomba should reach the search zone tomorrow.
Christopher Johnson, of the US Naval Sea Systems Command, confirmed the pinger locator won’t be deployed until there was a higher confidence about where MH370 went down.
Dr Alec Duncan, an expert in underwater acoustics at Curtin University, added: “They’ve got to find stuff on the surface first – until they do that there’s really no point trying to look underwater.”
Dr Duncan said they would need to get as close as possible to the beacon to limit other background noises, such as whales, masking the ping.
“The ocean’s actually a very noisy place,” he said. “It depends largely on weather conditions as to how much background noise there is. The calmer it is, the less there will be.”
Dr Duncan said if the aircraft fuselage remains intact on the sea floor then other sonar systems, such as the Bluefin-21, could be more effective as they have a greater range.