PULSE signals picked up by a Chinese patrol ship are unlikely to be anything but emissions from a planes black boxes, giving hope that flight MH370 may have been found right on deadline.
Batteries in the Malaysia Airlines 777’s two black boxes are due to expire today or tomorrow.
While urging caution, the head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, former Defence chief Angus Houston, did not dismiss reports that Chinese patrol ship, Haixun 01, had detected a signal with a frequency of 37.5 kilohertz per second.
“The characteristics reported are consistent with the aircraft black box,” Mr Houston said.
“A number of white objects were also sighted on the surface about 90 kilometres from the detection area. However, there is no confirmation at this stage that the signals and the objects are related to the missing aircraft.”
Australian planes may be sent to the southern Indian Ocean search area where the “pulse signal” was detected.
But the Australian team leading the international search has warned there is no confirmed link to the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
It was reported by the Xinhua News Agency — apparently from Chinese reporters on the vessel — that a 15 second pulse was picked up at around 4.30pm yesterday.
The pulse was reportedly emitting pulses every second at 37.5kHz — the international standard beacon frequency for black boxes.
The Malaysia Airlines jet had two black boxes aboard, the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorder.
It would be expected that a boat such as Haixun 01, which is thought to have a hull-mounted beacon-listening device, would initially pick up a signal and then lose it as it passed over the location. It would then retrace its steps to refine the location.
The JACC did not say whether the Australian Defence support vessel Ocean Shield, which has been towing a pinger locator in areas east of the Haixun 01, will now be moved to Haixun’s location.
The location, which according to Xinhua is 25 degrees south latitude and 101 degrees east longitude, places it in a new area beneath and above areas that have already been searched, roughly 1500km west-north-west of Shark Bay.
Chinese naval vessels Jinggangshan and Kunlunshan have already joined up with Haixun 01. Now it remains to be seen if there will be a convergence of ships and planes on the area.
An update from Mr Houston could come at around 11am WST, if he has anything to add.
In an interview with News Corp yesterday, prior to the Xinhua report, the mission commander on the Ocean Shield, James Lybrand, said it was to be expected that if a boat picked up black box signals, the sound would quickly fade as the ship moved away.
It would then be required to turn back over the search area and “localise” the frequency emissions, which could take many hours.
Commander Lybrand said yesterday there was “negligible” chance any pings at 37.5kHz was from biological sources, such as whales, and would almost certainly be from one of the two black boxes.
These sounds, or pulses, cannot be heard with human ears.
Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News cited its reporter on board the patrol ship as reporting that the ship’s crew had “basically confirmed” that the signal was from the missing Boeing 777-200.
However, experts have cautioned that the same signal could come from “a variety of things”.
“It could be a false signal,” oceanographer Simon Boxall told CNN. “We’ve had a lot of red herrings, hyperbole on this whole search.”
The view is not necessarily shared by searchers, who believe the beacon frequencies are too distinctive to be confused for anything else.
If the signals do turn out to be from the black boxes, the priority will be to narrow the location to as small an area as possible, and then to send an automated underwater vehicle (AUV) down.
It is not clear whether the Chinese have such a vessel, but the Ocean Shield does. It can take high-resolution images and has robotic arms that would be able to grab the black boxes if they were accessible.
The AUV would be controlled by underwater search experts from private firm Phoenix International, who are aboard the Ocean Shield with RAN, and the US Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage.
It would also be likely the British sub MHS Tireless, which is operating in the search zone, would also be sent to the area if it was determined the pulses were a credible lead.
Mr Houston said last night that its rescue coordination centre was now in contact with the Chinese searchers.
“The RCC in Australia has spoken to the RCC in China and asked for any further information that may be relevant,” he said last night.
“The deployment of RAAF assets to the area where the Chinese ship detected the sounds is being considered. I will provide further updates if, and when, more information becomes available.”
It has been a month since Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared en route to Beijing on March 8 with 239 people on board.
Up to 10 military planes, three civilian jets and 11 ships have been scouring a 217,000-sq-km of ocean northwest of Perth near where investigators have hypothesised the plane went down.
Australian Defence Minister David Johnston was asked last night about Chinese reports during a live cross on ABC24 for the WA Senate election.
“I know nothing. I don’t want to confirm anything because I think there has been a lot of this sort of false positives,” Senator Johnston said.
“Let’s wait until we have an official release.
“But look, I’m excited, I’m optimistic, but let me tell you it’s a very, very big ocean out there and up until this time, we’ve had a lot of disappointment.”