AusTender map of the seventh arc search zone

The successful tenderer for the next phase of the search for missing flight MH370 will have 300 days in which to sonar scan a search area of up to 60,000 square kms of the Indian Ocean sea bed at depths of up to 6000 metres, and be paid in installments for mapping no less than 5000 square kms every 25 days.

The winner’s first task will be to search a reduced and prioritised area of approximately 17,500 square kms along the 650 kms long search arc which corresponds with the evolving best estimates of the likely impact area of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER which with 239 people on board, vanished as a transponder identified airliner under baffling circumstances on 8 March when it was only 42 minutes into a five hours 50 minutes flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

The prioritised zone has not been identified, but the AusTender documents dated 4 June says this will be finalized in coming weeks.

A map accompanying the tender documents shows the full extent of the up to 60,000 square kms to be searched used specialised high data rate towed side scanning devices which stretches for 650 kms along an arc from 20 degrees S offshore from Exmouth to 39 degrees S well to southwest of Perth.

This is described as the 7th arc derived from the final attempt by an ACARS automated engine performance data reporting computer terminal that was on standby mode on MH370 to make standby contact with an Inmarsat satellite.

Investigating authorities have assessed that this last, and irregular electronic trace corresponds with the period when the 777 had run out of fuel, and its electrical system, most likely revived by the automatic deployment of a RAT or ram air turbine during the plunge to the ocean surface, attempted to re-establish its standby contact with the satellite.

The normal operation of the ACARS system on the flight had ended for reasons unknown shortly before its ATC transponder failed, however the hard wired standby ‘ping’ sequences persisted for as long as electrical power was available to the 777’s systems.

The tender period is tight, ending on 30 June, after which a bid appraisal and selection process is expected to last up to four weeks.

As the documents make clear, an immense amount of work is required by both the tenderers and the Australian authorities responsible for the ocean floor search, which is within Australia’s treaty and convention defined search and rescue area, if this contracted search is to begin in August as previously announced.

Once the search begins, the contractor is required to map 5,000 square kms of seabed every 25 days or risk payments being withheld.

The documents that readers might find interesting are password protected on the AusTender site, but have been published in full by the Wall Street Journal here, as the draft contract, and also,  as a guide to tenderers, which is the more lay friendly read.

Extracts from the draft contract, above and below

Between the inquisitive nature of US media, and the unleashing of China media concerning MH370, the elaborate confidentiality provisions detailed in both tender related documents could be compared to the erecting of fences to keep out a fog.  Totally futile.

Bidders have to satisfy the Australian selection process that their devices will navigate “holes, trenches, ridges, steep gradients” and a sea floor that may be composed of “silt, sand, rock, and possibly manganese nodules”.

Payment isn’t linked to finding the wreckage of MH370, however if it is found the successful bidder can charge extra for detailed mapping of the debris for the following purposes:

The WSJ report contains the previously unpublished observation:

Sonar equipment used in that search encountered crevasses up to 70 meters deep, according to Australian naval Commander James Lybrand.

This is a reference to the initial search of 850 square kms using a Bluefin-21  automated submersible. There are claims that this search did not in fact fully cover the area, and in fact the Joint Agency Coordination Centre in Canberra perhaps tartly noted that the search had only been done to the maximum depth that device could reach which was 6000 metres.

This supports suggestions that the Bluefin-21 search area may in part be revisited by devices with the capability of searching the sea bed that the automated submersible couldn’t reach.  MH370 might just be in one of those unreached areas after all.

Before the successful bidder begins the heavy duty sea floor searching it will have to demonstrate the proficiency of its equipment and processes over a test area which will test its identification of ‘potential man made objects’.