By KRISTEN GELINEAU
SYDNEY - An international panel of experts will re-examine all data gathered in the nearly two-month hunt for the missing Malaysia jet to ensure search crews who have been scouring a desolate patch of ocean for the plane have been looking in the right place, officials said Monday.
Senior officials from Malaysia, Australia and China met in the Australian capital to hash out the details of the next steps in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which will center around an expanded patch of seafloor in a remote area of the Indian Ocean off Western Australia. The area became the focus of the hunt after a team of analysts calculated the plane's likeliest flight path based on satellite and radar data.
Starting Wednesday, that data will be re-analyzed and combined with all information gathered thus far in the search, which hasn't turned up a single piece of debris despite crews scouring more than 4.6 million square kilometers (1.8 million square miles) of ocean.
"We've got to this stage of the process where it's very sensible to go back and have a look at all of the data that has been gathered, all of the analysis that has been done and make sure there's no flaws in it, the assumptions are right, the analysis is right and the deductions and conclusions are right," Angus Houston, head of the search operation, told reporters in Canberra.
Investigators have been stymied by a lack of hard data since the plane vanished on March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A weekslong search for surface debris was called off last week after officials determined any wreckage that may have been floating has likely sunk.
"Unfortunately, all of that effort has found nothing," Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss said. "We've been confident on the basis of the information provided that the search area was the right one, but in practice, that confidence has not been converted into us discovering any trace of the aircraft."
Houston has warned the underwater search is likely to drag on for up to a year.
Houston and Truss met with Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Chinese Transport Minister Yang Chuantang in Canberra on Monday to map out the next steps of the underwater search, which will focus on a 60,000 square kilometer (23,000 square mile) patch of seafloor. Officials are contacting governments and private contractors to find out whether they have specialized equipment that can dive deeper than the Bluefin 21, an unmanned sub that has spent weeks scouring the seafloor in an area where sounds consistent with a plane's black box were detected in early April.
The Bluefin has been limited by the fact it can dive only to depths of 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) -- and parts of the search zone are likely deeper than that. Adding to the difficulties is the fact no one really knows exactly how deep the water in the search area is.
"I don't know that anyone knows for sure, because it's never been mapped," Truss said, adding that detailed mapping of the seafloor will be a key focus of the next phase of the search.
In addition to deeper diving capabilities, the new equipment will be able to send information back to crews in real time. The Bluefin's data can be downloaded only once it returns to the surface after each of its 16-hour dives.
It will likely take another two months before any new equipment is in the water, Truss said. The Bluefin will continue to be used in the meantime, though its search is currently on hold while the Ocean Shield, which has the sub on board, is taking on supplies at a base in Western Australia.