KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Even as they celebrated the discovery of underwater signals that may have come from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the authorities involved in the search cautioned Monday that they were still far from confirming the location of the airliner and solving the mystery of its disappearance.
The Australian naval vessel Ocean Shield, equipped with technology on loan from the U.S. Navy, picked up a series of electronic pings Sunday that had the characteristics of transmissions from a plane’s data and cockpit voice recorders, commonly known as black boxes.
But on Monday, officials said the ship had been unsuccessfully trying to locate the signals again as it slowly swept a remote section of the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles northwest of Perth, Australia.
Personnel from the U.S. Navy, who are operating the underwater detection equipment on Ocean Shield, are hoping to achieve more “signal detections” to be able to pinpoint the source of the pings, said Cmdr. William J. Marks, a spokesman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, which is overseeing U.S. naval participation in the search. But the process is slow and deliberate.
At the same time, the batteries in Flight 370’s black boxes were expected to expire this week. The closer to expiration, the weaker the pings are.
If the searchers aboard Ocean Shield can define a more precise area where the black boxes might be located, they will then deploy a remote-controlled unmanned submarine to map the ocean floor and look for wreckage and the black boxes. The water at the vessel’s location is about 2.8 miles deep — about the farthest the submarine, a Bluefin-21, can dive.
If the plane’s black boxes are found, the effort will become a recovery operation. At such depths, that could take “a long, long time,” measurable in months, said Angus Houston, the retired Australian Air Force chief who is the lead coordinator of the search.
The signals were detected Sunday about 1,050 miles northwest of Perth, officials said.
Officials said that determining the nature and source of the signals might take several days, and that there was still no proof of the plane’s whereabouts.
The signals picked up by Ocean Shield occurred over the course of about 5 1/2 hours late Sunday in the northern part of the current search zone, northwest of Australia, officials said.
The sensors first detected the signal in the late afternoon and held it for more than two hours, officials said. The ship lost contact, turned around and picked up the signal again for about 13 minutes, officials said. On the return leg, sensors detected pings coming from two different locations, suggesting transmissions from both black boxes.
The Malaysia Airlines plane disappeared March 8 after it veered off its scheduled route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, and vanished from civilian and military radar. Based on analyses of satellite data, officials concluded that the flight ended somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.