The stars are aligning in what's certain to be an epic new chapter in the exploration of our oceans. Not one, but three efforts are currently underway to create technology that will take humans to depths considered the Holy Grail of deep sea exploration.
The latest entrant in what's now a three-way race is the company Triton Submarines — which this week announced a new vessel capable of taking three people to the deepest point in our ocean, specifically the bottom of the Mariana Trench at 35,994 feet. The technology used in this sub differs slightly from the custom creations in the making by Richard Branson and James Cameron. The goal for all is to venture deeper than ever before and pull back the curtain on what, if anything, might be lurking in one of our last great frontiers.
Here's a brief summary of how each team is hoping to win the great deep sea sub race.
1. The Triton 36,000
The team behind the Triton 36,000, created by Triton Submarines, is banking on a special type of glass to reach absolute bottom. Called "Borosilicate glass," its composition coupled with a spherical shape allows it to increase in strength as the pressure outside soars.
"Glass under compression gets stronger," Rayotek CEO Bill Raggio told Discovery News. Rayoteck is the company the company that designed the special glass. "You can hire some giant squid to come over with a sledgehammer and just start bashing away on that glass sphere. And it won't hurt it."
Apparently, the spherical shape of the sub also affords it more room for explorers, seating three as opposed to Cameron's two-seater and Branson's one. (More people to scream with is always preferable when that hammer-wielding squid actually does show up.)
Triton estimates that its sub will cost $15 million once testing is complete, a substantial cost-savings compared to the $60 million-plus cost of other manned subs capable of only 20,000 feet.
Cool fact: It takes 8-months of heating and cooling of the raw materials to create the unique properties of the Borosilicate glass.
The billions Richard Branson has made through his Virgin empire have enabled him to fund his exploration passions; with deep sea diving a current focus for the 60-year-old. Earlier this month, he announced a two-year, $10 million expedition to journey to the five deepest parts of the ocean, and potentially break some 30 Guinness World Records in the process.
To achieve this dream, his company unveiled the Virgin Oceanic Underwater Vehicle — a one-seater capable of "flying" through the water and diving to depths of 37,000 feet (7 miles). The craft is made from 8,000 pounds of carbon fiber and titanium, with a quartz viewing dome. It also features integrated high-definition cameras and a "flying wing" that allows it to explore up to six miles on the bottom. It can operate for up to 24 hours autonomously.
Branson and fellow explorer Chris Welsh will take turns operating the subs to their target depths. If all goes as planned, they hope to make their first dive on the Mariana Trench later this year.
Of the three main players in this race, we know the least about what James Cameron is building with his teams of Australian engineers. He's hinted that it will contain electric motors and incorporate lightweight composite materials - but beyond its expected rated depth of around 37,000 feet, little else has been mentioned.
It is interesting to note that Cameron was inspired by the design the late explorer Steve Fossett was pursuing - which, incidentally, ended up becoming the concept for Richard Branson's Virgin OUV. The UK Daily Mail actually did a mockup featuring the director sitting in the Fossett design late last year. Chances are, a very similar sub may emerge — complete with 3-D high-definition camera tech, and room for two people
Without a doubt, Cameron is interested in filming scenes for his "Avatar" sequels - but also alluring is a $10M X-Prize for deep sea exploration that's
currently on the table. (Edit: Turns out that the X-Prize Foundation has yet to formally announce the prize. According to a 2010 Sunday Times article, the idea is currently under consideration. Apologies for the error.) I've no doubt the self-proclaimed "King of the World" would love a shot at nabbing that one before Branson. Last I heard, he was planning on taking a shot at diving the Mariana sometime later this year.