The search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 will be expanded to include a large new part of the ocean floor, in an operation that may take eight months to complete, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Monday.
For over two weeks, a US Navy Bluefin 21 submarine has been scouring the remote Indian Ocean search area off Australia’s west coast for weeks, but the whereabouts of the aircraft remain unknown since it veered off course on 8 March.
The unmanned submarine has created a 3D sonar map of the ocean floor near where signals consistent with aeroplane black boxes were heard on 8 April.
Meanwhile, the six-week-long aerial search for the plane will officially end on Monday, the search coordination centre confirmed, and the team will introduce new equipment that can analyse a larger patch of the seabed for the plane and its missing 239 passengers and crew.
Mr Abbott told reporters on Monday: “It is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface. By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become waterlogged and sunk.
“Therefore, we are moving from the current phase to a phase which is focused on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area.”
In pictures: Missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
In pictures: Missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
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A family member of a passenger aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 burns incense as he prays at Yonghegong Lama Temple in Beijing
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Family members of passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 burn incense to pray at Yonghegong Lama Temple in Beijing
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A family member of a passenger aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 comforts another relative as they gather to pray at Yonghegong Lama Temple in Beijing
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Relatives of passengers on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cry as they gather at the Lama Temple in Beijing. Chinese relatives marked 100 days since the plane went missing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing by offering prayers and burning incense at the buddhist temple
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Relatives of passengers on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 offer prayers at the Lama Temple in Beijing
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A Chinese relative of passengers of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 prays at the Lama Temple in Beijing
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Chinese relatives of passengers of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 hold incense sticks and pray at the Lama Temple in Beijing
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Intan Maizura Othman (34) wife of MH370 fligh attendant Hazrin Hasnan holds placard during an event to remember the 100th day of the missing crews and passengers of Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 in Damansara, Selangor
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A young relative tries to stick paper planes on a board during an event to remember the 100th day of the missing crews and passengers of Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 in Damansara, Selangor
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Pictures of crews and passengers is displayed during an event to remember the 100th day of the missing crews and passengers of Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 in Damansara, Selangor
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Chinese police men try to prevent relatives of Chinese passengers onboard the Malaysia Airlines MH370 from marching to the Malaysian embassy from a hotel in Beijing
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Boatswain's Mate, Able Seaman Morgan Macdonald (L) observing markers from a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P3K Orion at sea in the Southern Indian Ocean. An oil slick in the Indian Ocean is not from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, officials said when insisting underwater search efforts would be 'pursued to their completion'
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Craig Turner from Phoenix International monitoring the Artemis' depth and speed as the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle scans the ocean floor for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 in the southern Indian Ocean
Since the focus of the hunt switched to the Indian Ocean 41 days ago, search teams have trawled more than 4.5 million square kilometres of ocean, with 10 civil aircraft , 19 military planes and 14 ships carrying out visual searches for debris bobbing on the ocean surface.
The next stage of the search – already the most expensive in aviation history – will cost at least A$60m (£33m) and could take six to eight months. But Mr Abbott pledged that Australia would “do everything we humanly can, everything we reasonably can, to solve this mystery”.
Crews will now begin searching the plane's entire probable impact zone, an area 430 miles long and 50 miles wide, Mr Abbott said.
But Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the head of the search effort, cautioned that the search will take time.
"If everything goes perfectly, I would say we'll be doing well if we do it in eight months,"Houston said, adding that weather and technical issues could prolong the search well beyond that estimate.
Officials will now look to recruit private companies to supply additional sonar mapping equipment that can be towed behind boats, to search the expanded area at an estimated cost of $60million.
As it make take several weeks to organise the contracts, the Bluefin will continue to search the seabed in the meantime, Mr Abbott said.
While each country involved in the search has so far been bearing its own costs, Mr Abbott said Australia would now seek contributions from other countries to help pay for the new equipment.
Two weeks after Mr Abbott said officials were “very confident” that a series of underwater ‘pings’ were from the flight’s black-boxes, he admitted: “We're still baffled and disappointed that we haven't been able to find undersea wreckage based on those detections, and this is one of the reasons why we are continuing to deploy the Bluefin 21 submersible — because this is the best information that we've got."
“It may turn out to be a false lead, but nevertheless it's the best lead we've got," he added.
Abbott also acknowledged it was possible that no debris from the plane would ever be found.
“Of course it's possible, but that would be a terrible outcome because it would leave families with a baffling uncertainty forever,” he said.
"The aircraft plainly cannot disappear — it must be somewhere — and we are going to do everything we reasonably can, even to the point of conducting the most intensive undersea search which human ingenuity currently makes possible of some 60,000 square kilometers under the sea.”
“We are going to do all these things because we do not want this crippling cloud of uncertainty to hang over these families and the wider traveling public,” he said.
Additional reporting by AP