The GO Phoenix, the first of three ships that will spend up to a year hunting for the wreckage far off Australia's west coast, is expected to arrive in the search zone Sunday, though weather could delay its progress.
Crews will use sonar, video cameras and jet fuel sensors to scour the water for any trace of the Boeing 777, which disappeared March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
The search has been on hold for months so crews could map the seabed in the search zone, about 1,800 kilometers west of Australia. The 60,000-square kilometer search area lies along what is known as the "seventh arc" a stretch of ocean where investigators believe the aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed, based largely on an analysis of transmissions between the plane and a satellite.
"We're cautiously optimistic; cautious because of all the technical and other challenges we've got, but optimistic because we're confident in the analysis," said Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the agency leading the search. "But it's just a very big area that we're looking at."
Two ships have been surveying the seabed using on-board multibeam sonar devices, similar to a fish-finder. The maps thus formed are considered crucial to the search effort because the seafloor is riddled with deep crevasses, mountains and volcanoes.
Two of the search ships will be using underwater search vessels worth around USD 1.5 million each.
"You can imagine if you're towing a device close to the seafloor, you want to know if you're about to run into a mountain," said Stuart Minchin, chief of the environmental geoscience division at Geoscience Australia, which has been analysing the mapping data.
"In all sorts of ways we're operating towards the limits of the technology that is available," Dolan said.
Malaysia and Australia are each contributing around USD 60 million to fund the search.
David Gallo, who helped lead the search for Air France Flight 447 after it crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, said that even if the fuel tanks had survived the impact, strong currents in the search area probably would have dispersed any leaking fuel by now. Still, he said, it's worth a try.
There will be between 25 and 35 people on each ship, and crews will likely work around the clock. The ships can stay at the search site for up to 30 days before they must head back to shore to refuel and resupply.
"The most efficient way is to keep going," Dolan said. "But you have to be careful with the well-being of your crews, to be sure you're not pushing them too hard."
"We're doing this primarily because there are families of 239 people who deserve an answer," Dolan said. "We will give it every possible effort and we think our efforts will be really good but there's no guarantee of success."