Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic sub is poised to be the first of this new fleet of commercial subs to start probing the depths—it should launch this year.
The deepest point in the ocean, the bottom of the Marianas Trench off the coast of Guam, is the scene of a new kind of space race: a deep-sea submarine race, undertaken by such private investors as director James Cameron, Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson, and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. Citing the excitement of exploration, all are involved in the construction of next-generation submersibles to plumb the trench and other deeps, taking advantage of price reductions in many components and the dearth of such innovation in the scientific community. Though designed to take the builders and other thrill-seekers to incredible depths, the ships are by and large not intended to be one-shot wonders, William J. Broad of the NYTimes reports:
“It’s not a publicity stunt,” [one builder] said of the planning effort. “We’re commercial vehicle builders. We want a product that can be used repeatedly without any difficulty — one that is very elegant, very safe and very competitive.”
That’s an improvement on the Space Shuttle, many would say. And several builders have indicated that scientific research may get to ride on billionaire builders’ coattails:
[Cameron] added that he was talking to oceanic institutes about developing long-term relationships for use of the submersible.
“We’ve gotten a pretty resounding response from the science community,” he said, “because they have such limited funding and access to these deep environments.”
Image courtesy of Virgin Oceanic