Spotlights peered into endless darkness as the vessel descended into the abyss. In the hollows of a small orb hanging below the blimp-like bathyscaphe Trieste submarine, two scientists shivered through the unrelenting cold of the ocean’s depths.
The journey would take them to the deepest known part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep at the southern end of the Marianas Trench. At nearly 36,000 feet, Jacques Piccard and Lieutenant Don Walsh would pilot the first vessel to reach this depth—a place where unknown creatures dwell and where the crushing pressure of the ocean reaches 16,000 pounds per square inch.
More than 50 years later, two groups are gearing up to make the descent once again.
Although the first and only manned mission to the bottom of the Challenger Deep on Jan. 23, 1960, was a success, the mission was limited by the technology of the time.
It made a vertical dive, stayed at the ocean floor for 20 minutes, and then began its ascent. Exploration was constrained by the location of their arrival, however, and their only window to the murky depths was a tiny porthole that had cracked on the way down—a factor that caused Piccard and Walsh to cut the journey short.
Five decades of technical advances ensure that the next submarine to make the dive “is much more capable of exploring” and “will make significant transects at the bottom of the trench, and enable significant filming,” said Adam Wright, principal mechanical engineer for Hawkes Ocean Technologies, in a phone interview.
The California-based company focuses on making both manned and unmanned submersibles, yet takes a different approach to the concept. Wright refers to their subs as “positively buoyant flying machines,” as opposed to the typical hot air balloon models.
When their “DeepFlight Challenger” submarine makes the dive as early as this summer, it will cruise along the bottom of the Challenger Deep, bringing more detail and exploring more areas than anyone could have fathomed in 1960.
Hawkes makes the sports cars of submarines. The sleek, winged vessels with large windows function the same as a jet, only reversed. While jets use motion to create lift, Hawkes subs use motion to descend. Since the vessels are positively buoyant, however, if they stop moving, they start to ascend.[youtube]_Sk_XEHfqwk[/youtube]
A Dream Realized
Although two unmanned missions were launched in 1996 and 2009 using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), the mysteries of the Challenger Deep are about to get an unprecedented level of exposure as some of the highest profile adventures in the world line up.
The DeepFlight Challenger was commissioned by Sir Richard Branson and was made official during the Apr. 5 opening of Virgin Oceanic, where Branson and Chris Welsh, chief pilot for Virgin Oceanic, outlined the upcoming mission.
The submarine, meanwhile, is a legend in itself. It was an experimental prototype commissioned in 2005 by famed adventurer Steve Fossett who wanted to set the “ultimate solo dive record for all time,” according to the Hawkes Ocean Technologies website. The sub is meant to reach depths of up to 37,000 feet, with up to 24 hours of life support.
It is meant to be the ultimate submarine, and the journey to the bottom of the Challenger Deep is meant to christen it with that legacy. “After you build the Challenger, everything else is just pennies from there,” Wright said.
Development of the submarine was cut short, however, as Fossett disappeared in 2007 while piloting a plane over the Nevada desert.
Although the team at Hawkes Ocean Technologies had the intellectual property rights to the technology in the sub, since it was commissioned by Fossett, it was part of his estate, and they were granted no access to the vehicle.
“The vehicle stayed in storage for three years,” Wright said. “When the project started up again they contacted us and asked if we were interested in finishing where we had left off. We said yes.”
They won’t be the only sub in the trench, however. Award-winning director James Cameron has also commissioned a sub rigged with 3-D video cameras for a similar dive at the Challenger Deep, in order to film scenes for the next “Avatar” movie.
Spirit of Adventure
Although there is strong scientific interest in both missions, a simple love for adventure and exploration is at the heart of both missions. The folks at Hawkes Ocean Technologies question the idea of sending men into space when much of the world’s oceans remain a mystery.
“There is still so much we still don’t know about our own planet and sort of the secrets…going to outerspace, while it’s still heroic and kind of exciting, there’s not as much to be gained from it, in terms of sizable things,” Wright said.
Audio files left by Piccard and the team from the original dive into the Challenger Deep paint imagery few adventurers could resist.
The bottom of the trench, as Piccard described, was a blanket of grayish or ivory white ooze—a covering believed to be formed by the remains of countless sea creatures.
The water was completely still, and the fact that the flatfish and shrimp swimming on the ocean floor could survive in the environment baffled researchers. They could only assume the water was not always stagnant, as life cannot scientifically exist without renewal of oxygen-rich waters, recounted Robert Sinclair Dietz, one of the original team members, in an archival recording transcript.
Dietz noted a couple things Piccard left out of his description, however. As the vessel descended, water began oozing into the sphere in two places. One of these leaks cured itself as the pressure increased, but the other became successively stronger with higher pressure,” he said.
Piccard also did not mention “that he saw some looming mass in the distance from his window,” Dietz said, saying it was large enough to be a ledge “or some sort of object.”
The idea of “sea monsters” is often tossed around jokingly by scientists on these missions. During one of his dives, Dietz recorded himself speaking of the concept as he reached below 2,400 feet, what he described as the beginning of a “timeless region,” and a place where such creatures are “supposed to lurk.”
He states that, “certainly many of the deep sea fish are monstrous in appearance even though only one inch long,” adding “I would suppose that sea monsters in the heroic tradition must be entirely mythical,” before he was shaken by a noise.
“A slight crackling jarred me from my contemplation of the sparking [spelled out] water,” Dietz said. “The noise seemed to come from the shell of the sphere as it adapted to the immense seizing pressure of the surrounding sea.”
“In this momentary awareness I tried to tell myself that all noises I could hear were good noises,” he said.
The fear Dietz felt was not so much of sea monsters as it was the crushing weight of the ocean—something ever present for any submersible dive. In cryptic comfort, he reminded himself that he would never hear an implosion of his cockpit.
As he reached 3,100 feet he said, “Many persons have sunk deeper than this, but only bathyscaph divers have returned to the sun. I thought of the many times my presumably well-designed oceanographic devices were returned to me from the depths as they collapsed and shattered [into] a hunk of metal.”
The DeepFlight Challenger will likely face less risk than some of the older subs, due to extensive analysis in virtual testing environments.
The team of five at Hawkes Ocean Technologies use software from digital design company Autodesk that lets them test how each part will react when 16,000 pounds of pressure are placed against it at every inch and fine-tune it from there.
“It enables us to stay small,” Wright said. “With five of us, just software and the correct tools enable us to build a deep ocean-rated submarine.”