Sub Searching for Flight 370 Forced to Abort Its First Dive

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Workers assemble the Bluefin-21 March 30, 2014. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the Australian official coordinating the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 warned that "In very deep oceanic water, nothing happens fast," and the first attempt to locate the plane on the ocean floor seemed to confirm that. Now that officials are "confident" that they know where the plane entered the Indian Ocean, an unmanned submarine is supposed to create a three-dimensional sonar map of debris on the sea floor. In the best conditions, the Bluefin-21 vessel takes a full day to dive to the bottom, collect information, and return to the surface. On Monday, the mission was aborted after just six hours when the unmanned submarine exceeded its maximum depth limit of 15,000 feet, and its built-in safety feature returned it to the surface.

Bluefin Robotics Corp., which manufactures the submarine, said that if it goes any deeper it might implode. Company president David Kelly told Bloomberg Television that at that depth the water temperature is slightly above freezing, and the pressure is "equivalent to having a Cadillac Escalade pushing down on your thumbnail." After the first dive, the vessel is still "in good material and working condition," according to the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but it didn't manage to capture any data of interest in the few hours it was underwater.

Officials suspected that the ocean floor in the search area might be beyond the Bluefin-21's reach. Vessels capable of diving deeper have been evaluated, but since none are currently available to aid in the search the Bluefin-21 will attempt another dive as soon as the weather permits. Lead coordinator Angus Houston said the seabed in the search area has never been fully mapped, and is believed to consist of deep layers of silt that could further impede the search. "I think this is an area that is new to man," Houston said.