Updated: 04/06/2014 03:55 | By Agence France-Presse

Chinese ship in MH370 search detects 'pulse signal'

A Chinese ship searching the Indian Ocean for flight MH370 detected a signal at a frequency used by the missing aircraft's black boxes on Saturday, but Australia warned there was no evidence yet that it was linked to the plane.

Chinese ship in MH370 search detects 'pulse signal'

A handout photo taken on April 4, 2014 by Australian Defence shows the towed pinger locator on the deck of Australian Defence vessel Ocean Shield in the first search for the black box of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean - by Lsis Bradely Darvill

Four weeks exactly after the jet, carrying 239 people, went missing during an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency reported that a black box detector on board the Chinese search ship picked up a signal at a frequency of 37.5kHz.

The Underwater Acoustic Beacons on the MH370 flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder both operate at that frequency, a spokesman for Honeywell Aerospace, the manufacturers of the black boxes on board the missing plane, told AFP.

Australian authorities leading the multinational search for the jet advised a high degree of caution over the announcement, stressing that no link to MH370 had been confirmed. 

The Chinese search ship Haixun 01 picked up the pulse signal at about 25 degrees south latitude and 101 degrees east longitude, Xinhua said in a brief dispatch Saturday.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, head of coordination in the search, said the reported characteristics of the signal "are consistent with the aircraft black box".

A number of white objects were also sighted on the surface about 90 kilometres from the detection area, he said, according to a statement by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC).

However, he warned: "There is no confirmation at this stage that the signals and the objects are related to the missing aircraft."

Australia has asked China for more information, he said, and was considering deploying search assets to the area.

Chinese officials also warned the signal had not yet been identified.

"Suspected pulse signal picked up by Haixun 01 has not been identified yet," the China Maritime Search and Rescue Center said on a verified microblog.

Australian Defence Minister David Johnston echoed the words of caution.

"This is not the first time we have had something that has turned out to be very disappointing," he told ABC television.

- Race against time -

The possible development comes nearly a month into the unprecedented multinational search for MH370, its 227 passengers and 12 crew.

Up to 10 military planes, three civilian jets and 11 ships are currently involved in the protracted search for the Boeing 777, but have so far failed to find any sign of the plane.

The hunt for the plane concentrated Saturday on about 217,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean some 1,700 kilometres (1,054 miles) northwest of Perth.

Australian and British vessels are currently involved in a round-the-clock underwater search hoping to pick up a signal from the black box, but the battery powering those emissions is nearing the end of its roughly 30-day life span.

The Ocean Shield, which is carrying a US Navy black box detector, and HMS Echo, which has a similar capability, are searching a 240-kilometre track of ocean in hopes of detecting sonic pings from the recorder.

However, progress is painstaking as vessels must move slowly to improve readings, and officials have acknowledged there is no solid evidence the plane went down in that stretch of sea.

Malaysian authorities believe satellite readings indicates MH370 crashed in the Indian Ocean, far off Australia's western coastline, after veering dramatically off course.

But no proof has been found that would indicate a crash site, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described the oceanic search as "the most difficult in human history".

JACC said Australia's Transport Safety Bureau was continuing "to refine the area where the aircraft entered the water" using further analysis of satellite data and aircraft performance.

Several nations that normally do not work together -- notably the United States and China -- have rallied to help look for clues.

But authorities still have no idea how or why the plane vanished, and warn that unless the black box is found, the mystery may never be solved.

- Caution and optimism -

Anish Patel, president of US black box beacon manufacturer Dukane Seacom, said he was "highly sceptical" about the Chinese report Saturday.

"I would like to understand why not two signals -- there should be a second beacon from either the flight data recorder or the voice recorder. So if the recorders are adjacent or within reasonable proximity... they should have detected possibly two signals," he told CNN.

"So let's get some additional assets in the water so we can corroborate, before we get everyone's hopes up, before we disappoint these families one more time I think we need to corroborate."

But Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia, said the news was exciting.

"The 35.7 kHz is a man-made noise. There's not another noise at that frequency," he told AFP, adding that this was exactly why black box pingers were set at this frequency.

"A whale or a dolphin or rain or an underwater earthquake... they have a completely different frequency."

Earlier in Kuala Lumpur, Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia would, in line with international agreements, appoint an independent "investigator in charge" to lead an international team to probe what happened to MH370.

The team will include Australia, China, the United States, Britain and France.

Hishammuddin again declined to provide any detail from Malaysia's ongoing investigation, however, saying he remained focused on finding the plane and its black box.

"In spite of (the long odds), our determination remains undiminished," he told a press briefing.

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