After conquering space, what’s a billionaire to do? Conquer the oceans, of course.
Later this year, Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson plans to launch a series of five expeditions to boldly go where no one has gone before. And Branson being Branson, he’s going to do it in style.
On April 5th, Branson launched Virgin Oceanic, an ambitious project to send Branson and fellow pilot Chris Welsh, one at a time, to the deepest parts of Earth’s five oceans. Each of the dives will mark the first time anyone has reached these points of maximum depth. And it’s probably no coincidence that their first destination is to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific: at 11 kilometers (7 mi) straight down the trench is the deepest point on the planet. To put that into perspective, if Mount Everest were placed into the Mariana Trench there would still be 2,183 meters (7,166 feet) of clearance above it. No one ever accused Branson of being too subtle.
Their next stop will be to the Puerto Rico Trench, which, at 8 kilometers deep (more than 5 mi) is the deepest point in the Atlantic. And then it’s off to the deepest parts of the Arctic, Indian, and Southern Oceans (I’ll save you the Google: the Southern Ocean encircles Antarctica). The shallowest of these will be their target in the Arctic Ocean, Molloy Deep, which measures 5,608 meters (18,399 feet) deep. The dives are expected to continue through 2012 and, as it is only fair, Branson and Welsh will take turns piloting the one-person craft, switching off between pilot and backup. By the time they’ve toweled off for the last time the pair will have broken 30 Guinness World Records. They actually won’t be the first humans to visit the Mariana Trench. In 1960, Jacque Piccard and Donald Walsh descended in the Navy bathyscaphe into the Mariana Trench, reaching a depth of about 35,800 ft. Not be outdone, Branson and Welsh plan to take their submarine even deeper, close to the trench’s absolute depth of 36,201 ft. Scientists speculate that they may be stopped by a layer of ‘biosoup’ at that depth. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Their fantastic voyages are made possible by the genius of Graham Hawkes, of Hawkes Ocean Technologies, recognized worldwide for his innovative submersibles and remote operated vehicles (his Deep Rover was recently used in James Cameron’s IMAX film, “Aliens of the Deep”). Using the latest in composite technologies Hawkes created a submarine made of 8,000 pounds of carbon fiber and titanium able to withstand pressures over 1,000 atmospheres. Virginoceanic.com points out that this is “approximately the equivalent of 8,000 elephants standing on a Mini-Cooper.” They’re going to need every bit of that strength on their first stop–smarterscience.com lists the pressure at the bottom of Mariana Trench at about 1,100 atm (or over 8 tons per square inch!). Down there, if the submarine’s quartz dome springs a leak it’ll cut through metal and flesh like a laser. It’s pretty cold down there too. Hawkes had to design his submersible to operate in near freezing temperatures. Testing on the sub is still underway to ensure the safety of its pilots. As it is the only submarine in existence that has ‘full ocean depth’ capacity, rescues are not an option.
Don’t Call It a Submersible!
In addition to its unprecedented robustness, Hawkes’ submarine uses innovative technologies to propel it through the water. Submersibles are typically designed to be very agile, able to turn on a spot. Most are roundish with smaller fins to minimize drag and maximize maneuverability. In designing the Virgin Oceanic submarine Hawkes drew inspiration from the creatures he’s helping to explore. Sharks and dolphins glide through the water, steering with their fins in ways similar to how birds use their wings to fly. Hawkes added two wings–called hydroplanes–that make the propeller-driven sub move through the water with an efficiency unparalleled among deep sea vehicles. Once they get down there, Branson and Welch will be able to “fly” up to 10 km over the ocean floor. Watch the submarine glide elegantly ever downward in the Virgin Oceanic video.
Measuring 125 feet long and a mast height of 147.5 feet (about the height of the Statue of Liberty!), the supercatamaran transporting the sub to its watery destinations will be an impressive sight in its own right. While en route the sub will sit in a sling between the two hulls. When they’re ready to dive, a crane will lift the sub, the sling will be rolled back, and the sub will be dropped straight down through a hole the crew has nicknamed “the moon pool.”
But it’s not all about adventure and glory. Virgin Oceanic is teaming up with researchers at several institutions to study the as yet unexplored ocean hideaways, including the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UCSD), University of Southern California, Monteray Bay Aquarium Research Institute (Univ. of Alaska), and Moss Landing Marine Labs (Univ. of Hawaii). The researchers are pretty excited to work with Virgin Oceanic. With the current human-occupied submersibles limited to a depth of 6,500 meters (21,325 feet) exploration of the deepest trenches have until now been performed exclusively by robots. The trenches will be outfitted with the latest sensing technologies to survey and map the trenches, and to collect samples. The more exciting part of the research, in my opinion, will be to see what the heck lives in the deepest parts of our oceans.
Virgin Oceanic is also partnering with Google who will help chronicle the sub’s adventures and findings, and bring them to the rest of the world. With the help of the researchers data beamed back from the sub will be used in conjunction with Google Earth to create 3D maps of the ocean floor. The high precision maps will be a significant contribution to the mere 2-3 % of total ocean floor area that has been properly mapped to date.
The submersible was originally the vision of Branson’s good friend Steve Fossett. A fellow member of the Billionaire Thrillseekers Club who was the first to fly around the world in a balloon solo and without stopping, Fossett died after the plane he was flying crashed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He commissioned the submarine with the idea of visiting only the Marina Trench. Branson is carrying out his friend’s vision and, in typical Branson fashion, pushing it even further.
In 2004 Branson launched Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company that plans to fly people to space for the dirt-cheap price of $200,000 (the Russian Space Agency charged $20 million for a ticket to the International Space Station). Virgin Oceanic is a venture in line with Branson’s vision of making accessible to all what was previously accessible to very few. Kind of makes me wish I’d been born a few decades later, when trips to space or to the bottom of the ocean probably won’t be that big of a deal (I don’t have $200,000, and even if I did I’m fairly certain my wife wouldn’t let me blow it on orbital flights). But until I can go I will be forced to watch others go. And I will be watching to see what happens because it is a big deal.
Kind of like Sir Richard Branson.