Why was the search suspended?

At a meeting of Ministers from Malaysia, Australia and the People’s Republic of China held on 22 July 2016, it was agreed that should the aircraft not be located in the then-current search area, and in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, the search would be suspended upon completion of the 120,000 square kilometre search area.

The Fugro Equator, the last search vessel departed the search area on 17 January 2017. Over 120,000 square kilometres of the ocean floor had been searched.

The suspension does not mean the termination of the search. The aspiration to locate MH370 continues to exist. Should credible new information emerge which can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft, consideration will be given in determining next steps. Any decision regarding resuming the search will be made, principally, by the Government of Malaysia.

Why did the search take so long?

From the point where the aircraft flew beyond the range of radar, there was very little information in relation to its location nor trajectory. It has been difficult for some people to accept that, in a world with Google Earth, smartphones and GPS, not everything is being tracked all the time. But MH370’s transponder – the unit that broadcasted its location – had ceased to function. There were no confirmed sightings of the aircraft. The only clues about its route were periodic satellite data unit communication signals. These signals had never been intended to provide information about the aircraft’s location; they were ”handshakes” between the aircraft and the ground earth station indicating only that the aircraft satellite communication system was still functioning. They continued for hours as the aircraft flew south into the Indian Ocean, a vast and largely empty expanse of water with little routine surveillance.

The metadata associated with the satellite transmissions did not provide any direct information about the aircraft’s position or route but signal processing experts were able to draw some clues from this metadata. By examining the time it took for the signal to travel between the aircraft, the satellite, and the ground station, the experts could draw an arc (part of a circle) close to the surface of the earth at the time of each transmission and be quite certain that the aircraft was somewhere on the arc at that time. Minute changes in the frequency of the transmission provided some information about the direction the aircraft was flying and its speed at that moment. This information represented seven brief snapshots over the course of 5.5 hours but they were invaluable. Combining this information with knowledge about the capabilities and characteristics of the aircraft, experts were able to narrow down the probable location of the aircraft from an area of about 1.2 million square kilometres to a search area that, while still large, was not impossible to search. But the search area was still one of the largest - if not the largest - in recorded history. The underwater search would eventually cover over 120,000 square kilometres of the sea floor, in a remote area of the southern Indian Ocean that would leave the search vessels exposed to difficult conditions, thousands of kilometres away from the nearest port.

Given no trace of the aircraft was found in the defined search area, does this mean you have in fact been looking in the wrong place all along?

The search has always been based on the best information and analysis at the time. Analysis of available data has been ongoing since the search for MH370 commenced. Initial results assisted the search and rescue mission and later refinements formed the basis for all of the underwater search activities.

As more information emerged, be it through the discovery of debris from the aircraft, drift modelling of ocean currents, or ongoing analysis of satellite data, those insights were applied to the search. A dedicated team of the best experts from around the world have continued to refine a unique range of analyses to define the probable final location of the aircraft. Experiments were conducted to ensure that predictions and assumptions aligned with actual flight data.

At a meeting of Ministers from Malaysia, Australia and the People’s Republic of China on 22 July 2016, it was agreed that should the aircraft not be located in the then-current search area, and in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, the search would be suspended upon completion of the 120,000 square kilometre search area.

From 2 - 4 November 2016, experts in data processing, satellite communications, accident investigation, aircraft performance, flight operations, sonar data, acoustic data and oceanography gathered in Canberra to reassess and validate existing evidence and to identify any new analysis that may assist in identifying the location of the missing aircraft. They agreed that the methodology and effectiveness of the underwater search meant that if an area had been searched there was little to no chance that any aircraft debris had been missed.

The experts concluded that, once the then-current search area was completed, an additional area of approximately 25,000 square kilometers had the highest probability of containing the wreckage of the aircraft. The experts stated that, if this area were to be searched, prospective areas for locating the aircraft wreckage, based on all the analysis to date, would be exhausted.

Has the investigation so far turned up any clues as to what happened to MH370?

MH370 was a Malaysian-registered aircraft and, as far as is known, came to a final rest in international waters. As a result, while the ATSB was given the responsibility for conducting the underwater search for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysia retains the responsibility for investigating the causes of the aircraft’s disappearance. The official website for the investigation is Malaysian MH370 Official Site.

Under the provisions of Annex 13 of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Chicago Convention, Australia has an accredited representative attached to the investigation. ATSB has also provided support and lent its expertise and facilities to some elements of the investigation. The ATSB has examined several pieces of debris found on beaches bordering the Indian Ocean, including along the east and southern coast of Africa. Some pieces have been positively identified as parts belonging to MH370, others are almost certainly from the aircraft, but lack the identifying numbers or features to eliminate any doubt. Details of the ATSB’s findings.

It is not the ATSB’s role to speculate about what happened during the flight. Questions regarding the investigation into the disappearance of MH370 should be directed to the Malaysian Government at MH370SafetyInvestigation@mot.gov.my. They retain authority for the investigation and the coordination of other nations’ input.

If you’ve found pieces from the aircraft, why can’t you just track the ocean currents back to where the aircraft came down?

Some drift modelling has already been undertaken by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and it has proven consistent with the area searched. There is a video online that illustrates the projected course of the debris, CSIRO drift modelling video. You can also find fact sheets on drift modelling.

The CSIRO report The search for MH370 and ocean surface drift PDF is available for free download.

Why don’t you just make replicas of the pieces that have been discovered, and scatter them in the ocean search area? Then you could track them and get a better idea of where to look?

Ocean surface currents are not constant, they change continually over time and with the seasons and they have a significant effect on the route a drifting piece of debris can take. Accordingly, scientists involved in the search have to base drift modelling on the data for the time that the aircraft went missing. Some of this data is related to ocean drifter buoys which have been released into the world’s oceans for the past 30 years to measure drift, temperature and salinity. There is a project underway in which replicas of the recovered debris have been released into the ocean in tandem with global drifter buoys, so as to compare the way the different objects travel, and apply those insights to the drifter data from the time that the aircraft was lost.

If the aircraft was lost so close to Australia, why has no debris been found on any Australian beaches?

While the MH370 search area is in the Australian search and rescue zone, it is not that close to Australia – at its closest, the search area is about 1870 kilometres from Perth. There are complex ocean currents between the search area and the coast of Australia and this lack of debris arriving on our coastline to date is one of the key pieces of evidence being used by CSIRO in their work examining the drift of debris.  

What should I do if I find debris on the beach that I think might come from MH370?

If you find an object on the beach that you think might be debris from MH370, no matter where in the world you are, please contact us at ATSBinfo@atsb.gov.au.

It’s best to retrieve the object, especially if it is in danger of washing away. Take the opportunity to check if it floats in the ocean – if it doesn’t then it is unlikely to be from MH370. Don’t wash off any sea life that might have attached to the item, the material could provide clues to the route that the object has travelled. Handle it as little as possible, and wrap it. This is because if the object is from MH370, then its condition may provide clues as to what happened to the aircraft.

When you write to us, it’s important to provide photos of the item, and the details of where you found it. Here are some things to keep in mind when photographing the object:

  • Include a ruler in the photograph, to show scale.
  • Take pictures of all the sides of the object – we’re particularly interested in the materials that item is made up of, so close-ups of different textures can be very helpful.
  • If there are serial numbers or markings, note the details in the body of your message (the human eye can pick up details that the camera doesn’t always capture.)

When you send us an image, we will let you know the results of our analysis as quickly as possible. Keep in mind, it’s much easier for the experts to identify an item that’s come from an aircraft, rather than identifying the origin of a personal item. If we receive pictures of a shoe, or an item of clothing, for instance, unless it has a name on it, it may be impossible to link it to MH370.

Don’t hesitate to contact us, though. We’d much rather receive a submission about an object that turns out to be nothing than miss out on a clue to the mystery.

What caused the aircraft to turn off course?

No one knows for certain. It is the responsibility of the Malaysian Government, under Annex 13 of the international aviation treaty arrangements to investigate the cause of MH370’s disappearance.

Under agreement with Malaysia and the People’s Republic of China, Australia led the search for MH370 in the Australian search and rescue zone in the southern Indian Ocean.

How much did the search cost?

In 2014, Australia committed $90 million to the search for MH370, including $60 million to support the underwater search activities.

The People’s Republic of China committed $20 million in the form of funding and equipment.

In addition to its earlier commitment to match Australia’s contribution of $60 million, Malaysia agreed to fund the balance of the costs associated with searching the entire 120,000 square kilometre search area.

The cost of the underwater search depended on a number of factors, including challenges with equipment in dangerous waters, weather and the length of the search, and was around $200 million.

How do you know MH370 is in the southern Indian Ocean?

All the evidence—based on independent analysis of satellite, radar and aircraft performance data from many international experts—indicates the aircraft entered the sea close to a long but narrow arc in the southern Indian Ocean. This arc was the focus of the search efforts from March 2014 to January 2017.

Why is the seventh satellite ‘handshake’ or arc so important?

The seventh handshake was the last communications MH370 had with the satellite. The signal was a logon request from the aircraft. This is consistent with the satellite communication equipment on the aircraft powering up following a power interruption. The interruption in electrical supply is highly likely to have been caused by fuel exhaustion. In other words, we are confident that the point where the aircraft ran out of fuel lies on the arc delineated by the seventh handshake.

Will the search ever resume?

Any decision to resume the search effort is a matter for the tripartite governments of Malaysia, Australia, and the People’s Republic of China.