Ships race to probe signals detected in jet search

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Retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston speaks to the media during a press conference about the ongoing search operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Sunday, April 6, 2014. Houston, the head of the multinational search, confirmed that a Chinese ship had picked up electronic pulsing signals twice in a small patch of the search zone, once on Friday and again on Saturday, but he stressed the signals had not been verified as linked to the missing plane. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston speaks to the media during a press conference about the ongoing search operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Sunday, April 6, 2014. Houston, the head of the multinational search, confirmed that a Chinese ship had picked up electronic pulsing signals twice in a small patch of the search zone, once on Friday and again on Saturday, but he stressed the signals had not been verified as linked to the missing plane. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston speaks to the media during a press conference about the ongoing search operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Sunday, April 6, 2014. Houston, the head of the multinational search, confirmed that a Chinese ship had picked up electronic pulsing signals twice in a small patch of the search zone, once on Friday and again on Saturday, but he stressed the signals had not been verified as linked to the missing plane. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

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In this image taken from video, a member of a Chinese search team uses an instrument to detect electronic pulses while searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, on board the patrol vessel Haixun 01, in the search area in the southern Indian Ocean, Saturday, April 5, 2014. China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported late Saturday that the patrol vessel Haixun 01 had detected a “pulse signal” at 37.5 kilohertz (cycles per second) – the same frequency emitted by flight data recorders aboard the missing plane – in the search area in the southern Indian Ocean. But retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston stressed the two electronic pulses that the Chinese ship reported detecting on Friday and Saturday had not been verified as connected to the missing jet. (AP Photo/CCTV via AP Video)

This Saturday, April 5, 2014 photo, shows a piece of white floating object, inside a white circle which was added by the source, spotted by Chinese air force in the southern Indian Ocean. Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search, said China reported seeing white objects floating in the sea in the area. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Huang Shubo) NO SALES

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PERTH, Australia (AP) — Searchers hunting for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet were racing to a patch of the southern Indian Ocean on Sunday to determine whether a few brief sounds picked up by underwater equipment came from the plane’s black boxes, whose battery-operated beacons are on the verge of dying out.

Ships scouring a remote stretch of water for the plane that vanished nearly a month ago detected three separate sounds over the course of three days. A Chinese ship picked up an electronic pulsing signal on Friday and again on Saturday in a small part of the search zone, and an Australian ship carrying sophisticated deep-sea sound equipment picked up a signal in a different area on Sunday, the head of the multinational search said.

But there were questions about whether any of the sounds were the breakthrough searchers are desperately seeking or just another dead end in a hunt seemingly full of them, with experts expressing doubt that the equipment aboard the Chinese ship was capable of picking up signals from the plane’s two black boxes.

“This is an important and encouraging lead, but one which I urge you to treat carefully,” retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search, told reporters in Perth.

“What we’ve got here are fleeting, fleeting acoustic events. … That’s all we’ve got,” he said. “It’s not a continuous transmission. If you get close to the device, we should be receiving it for a longer period of time than just a fleeting encounter.”

None of the signals has been verified as being linked to Flight 370, which was traveling from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing when it vanished March 8 with 239 people on board.

“We are dealing with very deep water, we are dealing with an environment where sometimes you can get false indications,” Houston said. “There are lots of noises in the ocean, and sometimes the acoustic equipment can rebound, echo if you like.”

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported Saturday that the patrol vessel Haixun 01 detected a “pulse signal” Friday in the southern Indian Ocean at 37.5 kilohertz — the same frequency emitted by the missing plane’s black boxes.

Houston confirmed the report, and said the Haixun 01 detected a signal again on Saturday within 2 kilometers (1.4 miles) of the original signal, for 90 seconds. He said China also reported seeing white objects floating in the sea in the area.

The British navy ship HMS Echo, which is fitted with sophisticated sound-locating equipment, was moving to the area where the signals were picked up and was expected to arrive early Monday, Houston said.

The Australian navy’s Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the U.S. Navy, will also head there, but will first investigate the sound it picked up in its current region, about 300 nautical miles (555 kilometers) away, he said.

Australian air force assets are also being deployed into the Haixun 01′s area to try to confirm or discount the signals’

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