The Australian government is inviting search and salvage specialists to take on the task of finding the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
Documents released yesterday show the private sector has effectively been handed control of search operations in an effort to speed up the hunt for flight MH370.
Starting in August, successful bidders will have 300 days to explore 60,000 square kilometres of seabed in the southern Indian Ocean. It's a vast expanse, the size of Sri Lanka, with depths of up to 6,000 metres.
Joining the winning bid will be a consortium of companies including Malaysian oil giant Petronas, which said last night it would fund a deep towed side-scan sonar for the operation. Malaysia last week asked the US to renew a lease on a number of remotely operated underwater vehicles.
Flight MH370 disappeared on March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The aircraft, a Boeing 777, carried 239 people, including 154 Chinese nationals.
The challenging conditions and depths in the Indian Ocean have proved tricky for the Australia-led search mission in the area to date.
The ocean proved too deep for a robotic submarine that went beyond its maximum operating depth of 4,500 metres.
Bidders interested in taking on the contract will need robust equipment capable of navigating "holes, trenches, ridges, steep gradients" and sea floor comprised of "silt, sand, rock and possibly manganese" minerals, the tender says.
The search will be funded from a A$50 million (HK$360 million) pot set aside by Australia.
It will be some weeks until satellite data that led search teams to the Indian Ocean is reappraised to define the 60,000 square kilometres to be searched.
Meanwhile, researchers from Curtin University in Western Australia released underwater data recordings that detected a "dull roar" indicating a high-impact crash in the Indian Ocean, around the time the Boeing 777 was said to have run out of fuel.
"We are cautious whether these acoustic events are related to MH370 … but there is still a small possibility of something to do with it," oceanographer Alec Duncan of the university said.
Analysis of sound data put it within one hour of the last known satellite contact with flight MH370, Duncan said.
Professor Cheng En, who studies underwater sound wave communication at the school of information science and engineering at Xiamen University, said the Australian discovery was possible, because low frequency sound waves could indeed travel thousands of kilometres in water.
Terms of MH370 search contract
- Private contractor has 300 days to carry out a seafloor search of 60,000 sq km in the southern Indian Ocean.
- Failure to search at least 5,000 sq km every 25 days will result in payment being withheld.
- Machinery must be capable of operating at depths between 1,000 and 6,000 metres for up to a year in all ocean currents and sea states.
- Must be able to identify, map and photograph wreckage field to determine recovery of human remains, flight and cockpit recorders plus aircraft components or cargo linked to the fate of MH370.
- Winning bidder must assemble global team and equipment, ready to search within one month of signing the contract.