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Searchers hoping pings come from lost Malaysian airliner

(CNN) — The reenergized search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will pick up again Sunday with Australian authorities urging people not to get their hopes up because a Chinese ship detected pings in the ocean.

“Reports overnight that the Chinese ship, Haixun 01, has detected electronic pulse signals in the Indian Ocean related to MH370 cannot be verified at this point in time,” Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre said in a prepared statement released Sunday.

Searchers are desperate for any clue about the airliner that disappeared nearly a month ago with 239 people on board.

Up to 10 military planes, two civil aircraft and 13 ships will assist in Sunday’s search for the airline. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) plans to search three separate areas Sunday about 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles) northwest of Perth. That area totals about 216,000 square kilometers (83,000 square miles).

Weather in the search area is expected to be good, with a cloud base of 2,500 feet and visibility greater than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), the JACC said.

On Saturday, Angus Houston, the chief coordinator of the JACC, said, “I have been advised that a series of sounds have been detected by a Chinese ship in the search area.

“The characteristics reported are consistent with the aircraft black box,” he said, adding that a number of white objects were sited about 56 miles (90 kilometers) away.

“However, there is no confirmation at this stage that the signals and the objects are related to the missing aircraft,” the retired air chief marshal said.

Neither the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) nor the Australian Transport Safety Bureau can verify any connection to the missing aircraft, the statement said.

The RCC in Australia has spoken to its counterpart in China and asked for any further relevant information, it said.

“The deployment of RAAF assets to the area where the Chinese ship detected the sounds is being considered,” he added, referring to the Royal Australian Air Force.

Video on Chinese state-run CCTV shot Saturday shows crew members from the Haixun 01 boarding a small yellow dinghy and using what appears to be a handheld hydrophone. The three men on board lower the device into the water on a pole.

The handheld ping-locating technology used by the Chinese ship is not as versatile as a U.S. Navy towed locator, which goes as deep as 20,000 feet, far from surface noise, according to experts.

The U.S. Navy hydrophone — or underwater microphone, is on board the Australian ship Ocean Shield, which recently joined the search for Flight 370.

The state-run Chinese news agency, Xinhua, said a detector deployed by the Haixun 01 patrol ship picked up the signal around 25 degrees south latitude and 101 degrees east longitude.

That puts it about 1,020 miles (1,640 kilometers) west-northwest of Perth, Australia, between current and previous search zones, and about 220 miles (354 kilometers) south of the closest of the three areas searched Saturday, said Judson Jones, a meteorologist with CNN International.

A previous search area was 130 miles (209 kilometers) south of the area.

“It’s not the prime search area, but it’s not out of the question that this could possibly be from the black box,” said David Gallo, who is with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The location lies on one of two tracks along which investigators had postulated the plane flew, noted retired Lt. Col. Michael Kay, a CNN aviation analyst.

“It is, again, more positive evidence,” he said. “That is good news.”

White objects afloat near the search area

Also found Saturday — spotted by a Chinese air force search plane — were white objects floating near the search area, about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) from Perth, Xinhua said. Those were presumably the same objects cited by Houston.

Investigators have failed to link any of the many previous sightings of debris to the missing plane. But the proximity of the two finds raised hopes that this time might be different.

The ship first detected a signal Friday but couldn’t record it because the signal stopped abruptly, a Shanghai-based Communist Party newspaper said. The signal detected Saturday, the Jiefang Daily said, occurred at 3:57 p.m. Beijing time (3:57 a.m. ET) and lasted about a minute and a half. It was not clear whether the signal had anything to do with the missing plane.

A China Central Television correspondent aboard the Haixun-01 (pronounced “high shuen”) reported that the 37.5 kHz signal was detected for a minute and a half.

The signal “is the standard beacon frequency” for the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, said Anish Patel, president of pinger manufacturer Dukane Seacom.

“They’re identical.”

The frequency was chosen for use in the recorders “to give that standout quality that does not get interfered with by the background noise that readily occurs in the ocean.”

But he said he would like to see more evidence. “I’d like to see some additional assets on site quickly — maybe some sonobuoys,” he said, referring to 5-inch-long sonar systems that are dropped from aircraft or ships.

And he said he was puzzled that only one signal had been detected, since each of the recorders was equipped with a pinger, which is also called a beacon.

Other experts cautioned that no confirmation had been made that the signal was linked to the missing plane.

“It ought to be easy to rule it in or rule it out, and they ought to go do it,” said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A source at the Australian Defence Force told CNN that it got word of the report around noon Saturday (midnight Friday ET).

Saturday’s leads came as concern was rising that the batteries powering the missing Boeing 777’s locator pingers would soon go dead. The plane disappeared on March 8; its batteries were guaranteed to work for 30 days underwater, and are predicted to die slowly over the following days. Monday marks day 30.

The batteries on Flight 370’s black boxes were due to be replaced in June, the Malaysia Airlines chief executive said Saturday.

“We can confirm there is a maintenance program. Batteries are replaced prior to expiration,” Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.

The tentative nature of the report was not lost on one Chinese relative of one of those aboard. “There is not confirmation, and we are all waiting patiently,” the relative told CNN Producer Judy Kwon in a text message.

Still, Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, was sanguine: “Another night of hope-praying hard,” he tweeted in response to the discovery.

“We’ve had a lot of red herrings, hyperbole on this whole search,” said oceanographer Simon Boxall, a lecturer in ocean and earth science at the University of Southampton told CNN. “I’d really like to see this data confirmed.”

If this proves to be what investigators have been searching for, “then the possibility of recovering the plane — or at least the black boxes — goes from being one in a million to almost certain,” he said.

But, he added, “It could be a false signal.”

CNN aviation analyst David Soucie was less skeptical. “This is a pinger,” the airplane accident investigator said. “I’ve been doing this a lot of years, and I can’t think of anything else it could be.”

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