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.”
A pioneering deep-sea robot, which could function unmanned and untethered to a surface ship, was lost at sea this week. The loss of the 15-year-old Autonomous Benthic Explorer, or ABE, comes as a blow to scientists who study the ocean’s floor. ABE could stay under water for an entire day; it ventured into some of the most remote and risky places on earth, making detailed maps of mid-ocean ridges and was the first autonomous vehicle to locate hydrothermal vents [The Boston Globe]. That’s why it earned a spot on Wired magazine’s list of “The 50 Best Robots Ever.”
ABE was on its 222nd research dive, studying a hydrothermal vent it had discovered off the coast of Chile on the Pacific floor, when all contact was lost with its surface vessel Melville. Scientists suspect that one of the glass spheres that helped keep ABE buoyant imploded. Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who designed and built the $1 million vehicle, believe that this implosion–almost two miles undersea and under pressure of more than two tons per square inch-would have caused other spheres in ABE to implode, destroying on-board systems and leaving the robot stranded at the bottom of the ocean floor.