An autonomous underwater vehicle tasked with scouring the sea floor for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has hit a hurdle on its first mission and returned to the surface.
The Bluefin-21 was deployed from Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield early last night to begin painting a picture of what is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean search zone, off the coast of Western Australia.
But it turned back six hours into its first 16-hour mission because it had reached its maximum operational depth of 4.5km, the Joint Agency Coordination Centre said in a statement on Tuesday.
“After completing around six hours of its mission, Bluefin-21 exceeded its operating depth limit of 4500 metres and its built-in safety feature returned it to the surface,” JACC stated.
“The six hours of data gathered by the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle is currently being extracted and analysed.”
On Monday, after almost a week had passed since a towed pinger locator on ADV Ocean Shield detected the last of four possible black box pings at sea, search authorities decided to deploy the Bluefin-21 and abandon the towed pinger locator search for black box signals.
The Bluefin-21 was meant to cover an area of 40 square kilometres on its first day underwater, using side sonar to create a 3D image of its surrounds.
It takes the vehicle two hours to reach the sea floor, it can then search for 16 hours, before using another two hours to return to the surface.
A team of about 10 US contractors aboard the ADV Ocean Shield would then analyse the monochromatic picture captured by the Bluefin-21, looking for anything that appeared "abnormal".
The Bluefin-21 is expected to redeployed later on Tuesday, “when weather conditions permit,” JACC stated.
JACC chief Angus Houston said on Monday that a larger vessel with wreckage recovery capability would be needed if the water depths exceeded Bluefin-21's capability.
Isolated thunderstorms, sea swells up to two metres, south-easterly winds and scattered showers have been forecast for the search area, the centre of which lies 2170 km north-west of Perth.
Nine military aircraft, two civilian planes and 14 ships are scheduled to search an overall area of about 62,063 square kilometres on Tuesday.