PERTH - A ship searching for the missing Malaysian jet has detected two more underwater signals that may be emanating from the aircraft's black boxes, and the Australian official in charge of the search expressed hope Wednesday that the plane's wreckage will soon be found.
Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search for the missing plane in the southern Indian Ocean, said that the Australian navy's Ocean Shield picked up the two signals on Tuesday, and that an analysis of two sounds detected in the same area last week showed they were consistent with a plane's black boxes.
"I'm now optimistic that we will find the aircraft, or what is left of the aircraft, in the not-too-distant future -- but we haven't found it yet, because this is a very challenging business," Houston said at a news conference in Perth, the hub for the search operation.
The Ocean Shield first detected underwater sounds on Saturday before losing them, but managed to pick them up again on Tuesday, Houston said. The ship is equipped with a U.S. Navy towed pinger locator that is designed to detect signals from a plane's two black boxes -- the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.
A data analysis of the signals heard Saturday determined they were distinct, clear and pulsed consistently -- indicating they were coming from a plane's black box, Houston said.
"(The analysts) therefore assess that the transmission was not of natural origin and was likely sourced from specific electronic equipment," Houston said. "They believe the signals to be consistent with the specification and description of a flight data recorder."
Despite the promising evidence, Houston warned he could not yet conclude that searchers had pinpointed Flight 370's crash site.
"I think that we're looking in the right area, but I'm not prepared to say -- to confirm -- anything until such time as somebody lays eyes on the wreckage," he said.
Finding the black boxes quickly is a matter of urgency because their locator beacons have a battery life of only about a month -- and Tuesday marked exactly one month since the plane vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board.
Once the beacons blink off, locating the black boxes in such deep water -- about 4,500 meters, or 15,000 feet -- would be an immensely difficult, if not impossible, task.
Houston acknowledged they were running out of time, and noted that the signals picked up on Tuesday were weaker and briefer than the ones heard over the weekend -- suggesting that, if they are coming from the plane's black boxes, the batteries are dying. The two signals detected on Saturday lasted two hours and 20 minutes and 13 minutes, respectively; the sounds heard Tuesday lasted just 5 and a half minutes and 7 minutes.
"So we need to, as we say in Australia, `make hay while the sun shines,"' Houston said.
Picking up the sound again is crucial to narrowing the search area so a small, unmanned submarine can be deployed to create a sonar map of a potential debris field on the seafloor. It takes the sub, dubbed "Bluefin 21," six times longer to cover the same area than it does the towed pinger, which is pulled behind the boat at a depth of 3,000 meters (9,800 feet).
U.S. Navy Capt. Mark Matthews said the detections indicate the device emitting the pings is somewhere within about a 20 kilometer (12 mile) radius. Still, he said, that equates to a 1,300 square kilometer (500 square mile) chunk of the ocean floor, which would take the sub about six weeks to two months to canvass. So it makes more sense to continue using the towed pinger locator for now, he said.
The fading strength of the more recent signals could indicate any number of things about the device emitting them, Matthews said.
"It could be sinking into silt, it could be the batteries reaching the end of their life, it could be further away," Matthews said. "It could be even closer, but with different temperature, salinity or pressure profiles affecting the sound."
Matthews was hopeful that searchers had zeroed in on Flight 370's location.
"It's certainly a man-made device emitting that signal," he said. "And I have no explanation for what other component could be there."
Houston said a decision had not yet been made on how long searchers would wait after the final sound was heard before the sub was deployed, saying only that time was "not far away."
"Hopefully in a matter of days, we will be able to find something on the bottom that might confirm that this is the last resting place of MH370," he said.
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing has sparked one of aviation's biggest mysteries. The search has shifted from waters off of Vietnam, to the Strait of Malacca and then to waters in the southern Indian Ocean as data from radar and satellites was further analyzed.
But finding any wreckage in such deep water has proved to be a monumental task. The Bluefin sub's sonar can scan only about 100 meters
(328 feet) and it can "see" with lights and cameras only a few meters. The maximum depth it can dive is 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) -- and there are some areas of the search zone that are deeper than that. That means a different machine may need to be brought in if debris is resting on the deepest part of the seafloor.
Search crews are also contending with a thick layer of silt on the seafloor that can both hide any possible wreckage and distort the sounds emanating from the black boxes that may be resting there, said Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Leavy, who is helping to lead the search.
Meanwhile, the search for debris on the ocean surface picked up intensity on Wednesday, with 15 planes and 14 ships scouring a 75,400 square kilometer (29,100 square mile) area that extends from 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of Perth.
Despite the challenges still facing search crews, those involved in the hunt were buoyed by the Ocean Shield's findings.
"I'm an engineer so I don't talk emotions too much," Matthews said. "But certainly when I received word that they had another detection, you feel elated. You're hopeful that you can locate the final resting place of the aircraft and bring closure to all the families involved."