Researchers and scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) have released two reports that identify a new search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Last month, we published an extensive update on how the search has evolved and the current state of the investigation — if you want to catch up on MH 370 news between the aircraft’s disappearance and late 2016, we highly recommend starting there. Now, researchers have identified a new search area where it believes the aircraft almost certainly went down — but there appears to be very limited political interest in continuing the hunt.
The reports issued today are the result of extensive meetings to review all available findings in early November. When the final search grid was drawn up in 2014, it was based on the best available data regarding MH370’s position as calculated from satellite pings. The meetings in November first considered all of the sonar evidence gathered over the last 2.5 years, including a review of all potential points of contact (only two strong signals, classified as Category 1 contacts, have been charted in the search grid to date — a timber shipwreck and a rock field). Once the teams determined that all of the existing sonar data had been properly classified and searched, they set out to create a better predictive model for where the aircraft might be, based on information that wasn’t available when the first grid was created: Drift data.
FlaperonTests
The science teams working on this case have constructed objects that could mimic the drift characteristics of the MH370 wreckage recovered to date, as well as conducting float tests on the flaperon that was found on Reunion Island. Float tests showed how the flaperon positioned itself in the water (its characteristics in two separate configurations were measured for better modeling accuracy), while 3D models were combined with wave and wind data in the area. These three data sets could then be combined with the precise locations where each piece of debris was located in an attempt to find where the plane entered the ocean. Unfortunately, because only one flaperon was found, we can draw only limited conclusions from the fact it washed up on Reunion. But we’ve found more than just flaperons at this point, and this is where the fresh data starts to make a difference. From the paper:
The subsequent findings of several more items on the coast of Africa is another matter. The arrival time of the first two items found, given that many more followed, implies quite strongly that for most potential sites north of 33°S it is very odd that no debris was found in the six-month or longer period before December 2015. This argues quite strongly that the water entry was south of 32°S or 33°S.
The absence of debris on the Australian coastline is also useful information. The observer density is low compared to most shores in the west Indian Ocean but awareness of the significance of a find, and likelihood of reporting that find, is presumably high. This absence of findings argues against three latitude bands as potential entry locations. These are near 33-35°S, 36-37°S and 39-42°S, leaving sites north of 32°S and bands around 35-36°S and 37-39°S as being more consistent with the absence of Western Australia (WA) debris finding.
The exact details on the drift analysis are all laid out in the 38-page paper CSIRO has published on the topic. The team also compared the total area initially searched visually with the area where the aircraft debris should have been at specific points, as shown below:
MH370-3
The formal recommendation of CSIRO and the ATSB is to target a search area to the north along the arc of the original target zone. On the one hand, this might seem obvious — we haven’t found the aircraft where we expected it to be, the old search area is almost exhausted, and so obviously the aircraft is somewhere else.
MH370-1
That reading, I think, missed the mark in multiple ways. First, this type of deep sea searching is intrinsically difficult. It took multiple expeditions searching for months to find the Titanic, and we knew with reasonable certainty where the ship had sunk (the dead reckoning positions reported by the Titanic turned out to be inaccurate, but the potential search grid was orders of magnitude smaller than MH370’s). Furthermore, the type of drift analysis CSIRO has performed was unavailable in the immediate aftermath of MH370’s loss. The slideshow below steps through each of the pieces of debris that have been conclusively identified as originating with MH370 so far.
In the end, it may not matter. The Australian government has stated: “We are very close to completing the 120,000 square kilometer underwater search area, and we remain hopeful that we will locate the aircraft. As agreed at the Tripartite Ministers meeting in Malaysia in July we will be suspending the search unless credible evidence is available that identifies the specific location of the aircraft.
“The search for MH370 has been the largest in aviation history and has tested the limits of technology, and the capacity of our experts and people at sea,” the Australian government continued. “Our thoughts remain with the families and loved ones of the 239 people on board.”
There’s no word on whether these findings will spark a reevaluation of that decision. It wouldn’t surprise me if the crews on-board the search ships are ready to be done with the mission (it’s not exactly cheap to perform this kind of search). Then again, after nearly three years on the job, said crews might prefer to finish the thing rather than leaving it undone.