CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A Chinese navy survey ship will start mapping the seabed off the west Australian coast this week as part of the latest phase in the search for the Malaysian airliner, officials said Monday.
Chinese, Australian and Malaysian authorities met at the west coast port city of Fremantle at the weekend and agreed that the Chinese ship Zhu Kezhen will conduct a bathymetric survey of the Indian Ocean floor as directed by Australian air crash investigators, Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Center said in a statement.
The Canberra-based center said the ship was scheduled to sail for the survey area on Wednesday, weather permitting.
Officials believe the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished with 239 passengers and crew on March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing veered far off course and crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.
After an initial air and seabed search failed to find any trace of the wreckage, authorities this month announced a new phase over a vastly expanded seabed search area covering 60,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles). The new phase also involves mapping of the seabed where depths and topography are in parts largely unknown.
Negotiations are underway to contract powerful sonar equipment to scour the seabed for wreckage that could be in water more than 7 kilometers (23,000 feet) deep.
The original ocean floor search of an area of less than 400 square kilometers (155 square miles) where a sound consistent with aircraft black box was thought to have emanated was conducted by a U.S. Navy unmanned sub, the Bluefin 21, near its 4.5 kilometer (2.8 mile) depth limit.
The Bluefin 21 had continued searching an ever widening area until a communications problem was discovered last week involving the transponders on the sub and the Australian navy ship that tows it, Ocean Shield.
The center said the Ocean Shield arrived on Sunday at the Australian west coast port of Geraldton, where preparations were underway to install spare transponder parts to both the ship and sub.