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MH370: Search for missing flight narrows to specific area along 'the seventh arc'

ABC News logo ABC News 4/07/2017 Lucy Marks

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The 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 remains one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.

Now, scientists believe they've narrowed down the potential search area to a fraction of space that was searched in December 2016.

But how did they get to this point?

Investigators now know the plane crashed somewhere along a line known as the seventh arc, to the west of Western Australia.

They came to this conclusion by looking at the plane's last transmission on March 8, 2014, and then examining a large search area in the Indian ocean, which was partially based on how far the plane could have glided.

That position was at latitude 39 to 36 degrees south along the seventh arc, but nothing turned up in the hunt.

Last December, they thought an area that spanned 25,000 kilometres at latitude 32 to 36 degrees south was the right place to look.

Within that new region, they have since narrowed it down to the area near 35 degrees south.

The most recent research by the CSIRO has strengthened scientists' belief this is where the plane may be found.

Police and gendarmes carry a piece of debris from an unidentified aircraft found in the coastal area of Saint-Andre de la Reunion. © Reuters/Prisca Bigot Police and gendarmes carry a piece of debris from an unidentified aircraft found in the coastal area of Saint-Andre de la Reunion. Is there hope of finding MH370?

"We think we know quite precisely where the plane is," Dr David Griffin from the CSIRO told a national marine conference in Darwin.

He said while the physical search was suspended in January this year, the work had continued in Australian laboratories, modelling ocean drift.

That's a scientific method that involves looking at what the ocean currents were doing on the day of the crash, and matching it with where debris has and hasn't landed, such as the piece of wing, called the flaperon, which landed on Reunion Island off the eastern coast of Africa.

The observation that no debris has washed up on the West Australian coast is also an important clue.

It means the ocean current must have been flowing in a particular direction — and not towards Australia.

"There's a strong current crossing across the seventh arc at [latitude] 35 degrees south, so we think the plane crashed into that current going to the north-west," Dr Griffin said.

"That explains why debris didn't arrive in Australia."

The scientists used satellite technology to precisely calculate the height of the sea level, down to the centimetre, which is a key to figuring out where the ocean was flowing on March 8, 2014.

A detailed map of the sea level can reveal where the ocean currents are and what speed they're going.

"And so that's the basis of how we know this current was flowing across the seventh arc at this time," Dr Griffin said.

CSIRO researchers lower an actual Boeing 777 flaperon into the water. © CSIRO CSIRO researchers lower an actual Boeing 777 flaperon into the water. Where to from here?

The CSIRO has handed over this work to the appropriate authorities, who will decide whether to resume the search for MH370.

Since April, when the last update on the flaperon modelling was reported, the scientists have said they're more confident than ever they're on the money.

"Since then we've been further scrutinising that work, and being a bit bolder to realise that 'yes, the answer has been there since December', that 'yes, actually there really is only a very small number of places which are consistent with all the evidence'."


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