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April 4th, 2014
06:21 AM ET

Underwater Search in 'Area of Highest Probability'

The hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has penetrated beneath the waves as searchers race to catch pings from the missing plane's flight data recorders before they fall silent.

But the area of the southern Indian Ocean where British and Australian naval ships are deploying sophisticated listening technology remains nothing more than an educated guess at where the plane may have hit the water.

The British Royal Navy survey ship HMS Echo and the Australian naval supply ship Ocean Shield began searching the ocean's depths along a single 240-kilometer (150-mile) track Friday, said retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the head of the Australian agency coordinating the search efforts.

The Ocean Shield is equipped with high-tech gear borrowed from the United States: the TPL-25, a giant underwater microphone that will listen for the pings from the flight data recorders, and the Bluefin-21, an underwater robot that can scour the ocean bed for signs of wreckage. The HMS Echo also has advanced sensor equipment.

Time is running out in the efforts to detect the pings as the batteries that power the recorders' beacons are expected to expire in the coming days.

"If they do find it, I think it'll be remarkable," said Bill Schofield, an Australian scientist who worked on developing flight data recorders.

Nearly four weeks have passed since the jetliner vanished with 239 people on board. With investigators still apparently stumped by the case, information in the flight recorders could help them unravel the mystery of what happened the night the plane dropped off radar.

But there are no new clues behind the area where the underwater search is concentrated. It's based on the same kind of analysis of radar, satellite and other data that investigators have used to determine a series of shifting search areas in recent weeks.

"The area of highest probability as to where the aircraft might have entered the water is the area where the underwater search will commence," Houston said at a news conference Friday. "It's on the basis of data that arrived only recently, and it's the best data that is available."