James Cameron stands beside his newly revealed submersible, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, earlier this month.
Tuesday the filmmaker and explorer reportedly broke the record for deepest solo sub dive. Within weeks Cameron plans to dive to the ocean's deepest point, he announced Thursday.
In the space of 90 minutes, the sub is to carry Cameron to the bottom of Challenger Deep, a 6.8-mile-deep (11-kilometer-deep) depression in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench. The first and last time humans descended into the trench was more than 50 years ago.
The dive is part of Cameron's DEEPSEA CHALLENGE project, co-sponsored by National Geographic, which will take him and a crew of engineers, scientists, and filmmakers to explore the world's ocean trenches.
With the last few weeks, Cameron and his team have successfully completed untethered test dives in the submersible off Papua New Guinea and plan to conduct more tests near Guam (map) before attempting the Challenger Deep descent.
James Cameron's DEEPSEA CHALLENGER sub is lowered into Australia's Sydney Harbour from the vessel Mermaid Sapphire on January 26. A five-plus-mile-deep (eight-plus-kilometer-deep) test on Tuesday made the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER the deepest-diving submersible known to be in current operation and the deepest-diving single-occupancy sub in history.
A computer rendering of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER in duplicate shows off the vehicle's different lighting configurations, including an 8-foot-tall (2.4-meter-tall) stack of LEDs. The sub sports an unconventional vertical design and houses a spherical, steel compartment at its bottom that can carry one pilot.
Cameron will have a maximum of about six hours at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. During that time, he plans to shoot 3-D video of the trench bottom and collect rocks and deep-sea creature specimens.
A veteran of dozens of deep-sea submersible dives, he'll use the craft's multiple 3-D, high-definition cameras to capture his Mariana Trench journey. The resulting 3-D films, he hopes, will help inspire public interest in exploration and scientific study of the deep ocean.
The steel pilot sphere forthe DEEPSEA CHALLENGER—with its small circular window opening—glows red from the heat of its creation.
Cameron isn't the only person dreaming of reaching the ocean's deepest point.
U.K. magnate Richard Branson has built a two-seater sub resembling a stubby-winged airplane, which he says can survive a Challenger Deep descent. Also, the Triton "luxury" submersible company last year unveiled the Triton 36000/3 model, which would reportedly allow a three-person crew to make the journey.
Photograph courtesy DEEPSEA CHALLENGE
History Within Reach
Among the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER's panoply of tools is a folding robotic arm, illustrated above.
Before Cameron's dive, the team also plans to send unmanned "landers" to the trench bottom. Resembling skinny phone booths, the 13-foot-tall (4-meter-tall), camera-equipped submersibles will carry bait to lure sea creatures into plastic cylinders, which can be retrieved by the team when the landers surface.
"The animals on the inside are captured" and even after ascent, "still cold, still under pressure," Kevin Hardy, senior development engineer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, and a member of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team, told National Geographic.
James Cameron fits a casing onto the instrument package atop of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER sub, pictured lying on its side January 15. The package includes numerous GPS and light beacons as well as radio direction finders—all to help ships find the sub once it bobs back to the surface after a dive.
"When you're diving seven miles down and back up seven miles in a big empty ocean, the sub may not return to where it's supposed to be, and the search-and-recovery crew will have to find it and get you out," Cameron said.
Divers prep the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER for launch during a six-hour, thousand-meter-deep (3,280-foot-deep) test dive off Papua New Guinea on February 23.
The sub floats, thanks to a specially designed foam that also helps speed the craft's ascent back to the surface. More than a thousand pounds (450 kilograms) of steel plates are magnetically attached to the bottom of the sub to cause it to sink.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
Rapid Weight Loss
To return to the surface, Cameron flips a switch inside the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER to electromagnetically cast off the steel plates that weigh the sub down, as shown in a sequence illustrated above. The cork-style ascent from Challenger Deep is estimated to take about 90 minutes.
If the weights don't drop, Cameron will be stuck at the bottom of the ocean with a very limited oxygen supply.
Engineers have built several safety precautions into the sub to ensure this critical step happens. For example, if there's a power failure, the weights will automatically drop. Cameron can also manually power up a tool that uses heat to break the bolts holding the plates in place.
And if something should happen to Cameron, crew members at the surface can electromagnetically jettison the plates via remote control.
Illustration courtesy Acheron Project Pty. Ltd.
Located in the western Pacific Ocean just east of the Mariana Islands, the Mariana Trench is a crescent-shaped channel that extends more than 1,500 miles (2,550 kilometers). Its deepest point, called Challenger Deep, lies nearly 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) from the surface.
Because of its extreme depth, the trench is perhaps the most inhumane place on Earth: cloaked in perpetual darkness, chilled to near freezing. At the bottom, Cameron's craft will be subjected to water pressures approaching 16,000 pounds per square inch (11,250,000 kilograms per square meter).
"It would be about the equivalent of turning the Eiffel Tower upside down and resting it on your big toe," DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team member Patricia Fryer told National Geographic News. Fryer is a geologist at the Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics & Planetology (HIGP).
The sub will actually shrink by about 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters) during the descent.
The danger and difficulty of sending a human to the ocean's deepest point have caused some to question the wisdom of recreating the Trieste's feat, especially when remotely operated vehicles can do much the same job. But HIGP's Fryer said a remotely operated vehicle is no substitute for human exploration.
"The critical thing is to be able to take the human mind down into that environment," she said, "to be able to turn your head and look around to see what the relationships are between organisms in a community and to see how they're behaving, to turn off all the lights and just sit there and watch and not frighten the animals so that they behave normally."
Cameron also hopes he can help solve some basic scientific puzzles about ocean trenches, such as whether fish can survive at those depths.
"We're gonna go down there with our cameras, our lights," he said, "and find the answers to some of those questions."