SYDNEY, June 10 (Reuters) - Australia on Tuesday signed a contract with a private company to map the sea floor around where missing Malaysia Airlines MASM.KL Flight MH370 is believed to have crashed, a crucial step towards continuing an underwater search later this year.
Months of searches have failed to turn up any trace of the missing Boeing 777, which disappeared on March 8 carrying 239 passengers and crew shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.
Investigators say what little evidence they have to work with suggests the aeroplane was deliberately diverted thousands of kilometres from its scheduled route before eventually crashing into the Indian Ocean.
The next phase of the search, which will be handed over from the military to the private sector, is expected to start in August and take up to a year, covering some 60,000 sq km (23,000 square miles) of ocean at a cost of A$60 million ($56.16 million) or more.
The search is already the most expensive in aviation history.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau chose a subsidiary of Dutch multinational Fugro to perform the detailed underwater mapping necessary before that phase can begin.
“The bathymetric survey will provide a map of the underwater search zone, charting the contours, depths and composition of the sea floor in water depths up to 6,000 metres (3.7 miles),” Australia’s Joint Agency Coordinating Centre, which has been leading the multinational search, said in a statement.
“The survey will provide crucial information to help plan the deep water search for MH370 which is scheduled to commence in August.”
The search was narrowed in April after a series of acoustic pings thought to be from the plane’s black box recorders were heard near where analysis of satellite data put its last location, some 1,600 km (1,000 miles) off the northwest coast of Australia.
But officials now say that wreckage from the aircraft was not in the area they had identified and that the search will be expanded. (Editing by Robert Birsel)