$50 million contract to find MH370

Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 take part in a prayer service at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. (TOPSHOTS/AFP PHOTO/WANG ZHAO)

The Australian government has contracted Dutch company Fugro to find the missing MH370 plane.

Australia has signed a contract worth more than $50 million to scour the ocean floor for the wreckage of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Almost five months after the passenger jet carrying 239 people went missing, the search continues in the southern Indian Ocean off the West Australian coast, where officials are confident the aircraft lies.

"I remain cautiously optimistic that we will find the missing aircraft within the priority search area," Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.

Dutch company Fugro will begin sonar scanning in September. It will analyse the 60,000sq km seabed, of which almost half has been mapped in preparation.

Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief commissioner Martin Dolan said it would be a challenging task for the contractors.

"We are finding some surprises as we go," he said of the mapping, which has found depths ranging from 4.8km to 1.5km and features such as underwater volcanoes.

Fugro will use two vessels towing submerged vehicles to scan the search area, which is about the size of Tasmania.

An expert team will work beneath the water surface using sonar and video cameras.

"Hopefully, we will find the aircraft or a debris field or traces of where the aircraft has entered the water so we can provide closure to the families involved and information to support the investigation," Mr Truss said.

Malaysia remains in charge of finding out what happened to MH370, which disappeared during its March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The deputy prime minister said the July 17 shooting down of MH17 over eastern Ukraine has not affected the search effort for MH370.

But he said the airline and the Malaysian government had had to focus on the more recent of the "two extraordinary circumstances".

The agreement with Fugro is worth $52 million over 12 months, but could change.

"The size of this contract depends on how long we're in the water," Mr Truss said.

"If we can find (the aircraft) on the first day, there will still be substantial establishment costs but it will be much less than if we take the whole year."

Australia, which is leading the search effort, hopes to split the costs with Malaysia "and potentially others".

The contract is only to search for the aircraft.

"At this stage we haven't completed an agreement as to recovery," Mr Nolan said.

Six Australians were on board the aircraft when it disappeared.

Source AAP

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