Rocket Plunge to Deep End of the Planet

Source: NY Times

 

For centuries, the daredevils known as submariners have slipped beneath the waves in vehicles made for horizontal travel. Their craft are basically underwater ships. Even submersibles, small vessels that dive unusually deep, follow the horizontal plan.

In a stroke, James Cameron has upended the field — literally and figuratively. A man known for imaginative films (“Titanic,” “Avatar”), he has reinvented the way that people explore the deep ocean.

This month, Mr. Cameron unveiled his unique submersible and announced plans to ride it solo into the planet’s deepest recess, the Challenger Deep in the western Pacific, nearly seven miles down.

He calls it a vertical torpedo. The axis of his 24-foot-long craft is upright rather than horizontal, speeding the plunge. His goal is to fall and rise as quickly as possible so he can maximize his time investigating the dark seabed. He wants to prowl the bottom for six hours.

“It’s very clever,” said Alfred S. McLaren, a retired Navy submariner who helps to run a company that makes submersibles. “Nobody has done this kind of thing before. It’s a great idea, a tremendous idea.”

He likened Mr. Cameron to “an underwater Steve Jobs — difficult to get along with but very creative.”

“He’s driven,” Dr. McLaren went on. “He put together a hell of a technical team.”

Just as bullets are spun to steady their flight, Mr. Cameron’s craft rotates on its vertical axis — another first. In a test dive, he has already broken the modern depth record for piloted vehicles, going down more than five miles.

“He’s done something radical,” said Peter Girguis, a biological oceanographer at Harvard and head of a panel that oversees the nation’s fleet of deep-research vehicles. “He’s set aside the conventional wisdom.”

Mr. Cameron sees his craft — built in secrecy in Australia over eight years — as greatly expanding the power of scientists to explore the abyss. On the Challenger Deep expedition, he is working with the National Geographic Society, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Hawaii and other scientific groups.

“It’s really fun,” he said in an interview during sea trials off Papua New Guinea. “There’s no bigger high in my world.”

Mr. Cameron, now near the Challenger Deep in the expedition’s ship, is awaiting calm seas for what experts called an audacious bid that will shed light on a hidden world of strange life forms.

The deep sea is much harder to explore than outer space. Far from the sun’s warming rays, the inky darkness miles down hovers at temperatures near freezing. Seawater is also corrosive, often full of debris and largely opaque to light and radio waves.

Most daunting of all, it is extraordinarily heavy. In the Challenger Deep, the waters overhead exert a downward pressure of more than eight tons per square inch.

 

 

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