MH370: Search turns to nuclear alert technology

CTBTOInvestigators have confirmed they will review feedback from a series of ultra-sensitive deep sea microphones designed to detect nuclear blasts to help find the final resting place of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Shortly after the aircraft was reported missing on March 8, experts at the United Nations’ Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) were asked to review automatic reports from its network of infrasound monitoring stations in the region and make a detailed investigation.

At the time, CTBTO said it had not detected any infrasound measurements that could aid in the search but did point out that the only reported commercial aircraft that had ever been successfully tracked over large distances over oceans with infrasound technology was the Concord as it was travelling at supersonic speed.

Although infrasound can routinely detect commercial flights taking off and landing from local airports, it can do so only at close range. Several incidents involving aircraft have however been detected in the past such as the crash of the FedEx cargo aircraft at Narita International Airport in March 2009 and the crash of two F16 military aircraft at an air show in Belgium in 2003. In those cases, infrasound stations located within a few hundred kilometres detected the events.

“For Flight MH370 to be picked up by the International Monitoring System’s infrasound network at regional or global distances, it could mean that it crashed, exploded or disintegrated. However it would likely not be possible to draw any definitive conclusion based on remote infrasound recordings alone,” it stated.

It points out that in the hours following the aircraft disappearing from radar screens, only one station at Isumi in Japan registered any signals although experts discounted these as probably originating from the Malaysian and Vietnamese area and related to volcanic activity in Kyushu and Tanegashima islands in the seas south-west of the station.

Subsequent analysis by UK satellite business Inmarsat and MH370 investigation experts of the satellite ping data reassigned the search effort to the southern Indian Ocean south west of Perth.

Investigators at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said they will now take another look at low frequency hydroacoustic data in the search for MH370. Signals present in the Indian Ocean are similarly recorded by a network of hydroacoustic stations as part of the monitoring effort by both the CTBTO and the Integrated Marine Observing System and can potentially detect the impact of a large aircraft into the ocean.

Hydroacoustic monitoring involves recording signals that show changes in water pressure generated by sound waves in the water. Sound propagates very efficiently through water so that it can be heard and detected at great distances.

On April 16, Air Traffic Management quizzed the CTBTO as to whether it had been requested to investigate these potentially vital sources of information. “We’ve left no stone unturned,” said an official. “Neither our analysts nor those in member states have found any trace of MH370 on infrasound, hydroacoustic or seismic data.”

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