Fugro Equator MV, the Dutch ship used to map the Indian Ocean floor in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Fugro Equator MV, the Dutch ship used to map the Indian Ocean floor in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Photo: Courtesy Fugro NV

Canberra: A commercial vessel under contract from the Australian government has begun mapping the floor of the southern Indian Ocean in preparation for a renewed search for Malaysia Airlines' missing Flight 370, but that search has been complicated by a complete lack of satellite images of the new search area from the week after the plane disappeared.

The Fugro Equator, a commercial survey ship on a three-month lease, is moving slowly around an area that is 800 kilometres south-west of the region where the ocean floor was searched in April and early May, according to commercially available data from a satellite locator beacon aboard the vessel. The new search area is 1540 km north-west of Perth, Australia.

Martin Dolan, the chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said in an email response to questions on Wednesday afternoon that "Fugro Equator has been assigned to an area consistent with the provisional results of our search area analysis."

Tim Farrar, a satellite communications consultant in Menlo Park, California, one of a group of satellite experts who have been conducting their own independent analysis of clues to the final resting place of Flight 370, expressed surprise that the search area had not been moved even farther south-west. The plane disappeared March 8 with 239 people aboard during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.

The new location is consistent with the plane having travelled south at a speed of about 380 knots after it disappeared from Malaysian radar while over the northern end of the Strait of Malacca, Farrar said. The area of the sea floor that was checked in April and May, after US Navy contractors thought they had heard acoustic pings from the aircraft's "black boxes," was consistent with a plane limping along at only 325 knots.

But Mr Farrar said that the group of independent experts with whom he was working had assumed a speed of 460 to 470 knots. "We are unclear about why they are driving to a relatively slower solution," he said.

Two possible explanations are that the authorities believe the plane travelled farther west before turning south, or that the plane did not follow a straight path on its trip south, Mr Farrar said.

The Australian government has said that it will announce the new search area by the end of this month.

New York Times