Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout with new information.
Dramatic changes in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, first reported in The Daily Beast, have continued in the past 24 hours.
The vessel scouring the depths of the Indian Ocean made a high-speed dash on Friday northward to an area recently identified as far more likely to contain the remains of the jet. After making a sweep there, it pressed even further north on Saturday into an area where the seabed had not been previously mapped – normally searches are conducted only where the underwater terrain has been detailed in three-dimensional charts.
The Dutch-owned vessel Equator is using an autonomous underwater vehicle that is capable of navigating in terra incognita using its own sensors.
This change of mission was detected by Dr. Richard Cole, of University College, London, who has been following the search operation for many months via satellite tracking.
Cole told The Daily Beast that in its run north the Equator went as far as 34.4 degrees south before turning back on Sunday.
“After its run north Equator has now tracked back southwest at high speed to a point at 35.3 degrees south where it seems that the AUV is deployed again.”
Cole says that this latest location is inside an area that has been scanned twice before – in an initial search and then again, last September, after data from the first search suggested that this should be an area of priority.
Dan O’Malley, a spokesman for Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which directs the search, told The Daily Beast: “Equator is completing its final swing and gathering some sonar data in areas we haven’t previously completed. Equator’s search operations are expected to be completed by the end of January.”
It comes after the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, directing the search operations, admitted that the area of 46,000 square miles that has been searched for 27 months is unlikely to contain the remains of the jet. Equator was making its final sweeps in that area when it was suddenly diverted this weekend. Experts now believe that the most likely site of the wreck is further north of the original area, between latitudes 32 to 36 degrees south.
David Griffin, one of the leaders of the scientific team that reassessed the likely location of the wreckage of the Boeing 777, has stressed to The Daily Beast that even though the team’s work continues it might strengthen their conclusions but not alter them in any significant way.
“The last thing we want anyone to think is that the findings presented in our report are just preliminary in any way.”
The report was based on the analysis of more than 20 pieces of debris believed to be from the 777 that washed up on beaches in the western Indian Ocean – analysis that reconstructed the journey of the debris across the ocean and then used this to calculate where it had originated.
In 2014 and again late in 2015 searchers were alerted when sonar scans of the seabed indicated large items of debris in the original search area. On the second of those contacts the searchers were so sure they had found the wreck of MH370 at a depth 12,100 feet that they notified Australian politicians to be ready to announce a successful end to the search. On closer examination it turned to be the wreck of a late 19th century iron ship, 260 feet long. (The Malaysian 777 was 209 feet long.)
MH370 disappeared in March, 2014, with 239 people on board,and the current search began in October 2014, based on the best scientific analysis then available.
But the discovery of more than a score of pieces debris from the Malaysian 777 on beaches in the western Indian Ocean, beginning in the summer of 2015, has provided vital new guidance on where the jet likely spiraled down into the ocean, having run out of fuel.
Now the $150 million funding for the search is exhausted and the Australian, Chinese and Malaysian authorities are facing increasing pressure to fund a new search in an area of 9,600 square miles to the north.
An international group representing the families of the passengers, Voice 370, said “Extending the search to the new area defined by experts is an inescapable duty owed to the flying public in the interest of aviation safety.”
However, Malaysia’s transport minister, Liow Tiong Lai, has said that the search was “at the final lap” and indicated that a new search would not begin until results of the current search are published in a final report. He did not say when that would be.