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Sir Richard Branson sets sights deep

by Jeni Bone on 7 Apr 2011
Sir Richard Branson with the Virgin Oceanic deep-sea sub. Virgin Oceanic
Sir Richard Branson will revive the spirit and ambitions of his friend and fellow adventurer, Steve Fossett with exploration of the deepest points of the world’s oceans, in the high-tech submersible 'Deep Flight Challenger'.

The concept was just four weeks from ocean trials when Fossett disappeared in September of 2007. It had been thoroughly tested at US Department of Defense facilities and was deemed strong enough to withstand water pressure of up to 20,000 pounds per square inch, more even than the 16,000 PSI pressure known to be found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Designed by Graham Hawkes, the Deep Flight Challenger was originally commissioned by the late Steve Fossett. Branson said at its media launch last week, he 'intends to finish what his friend started and then go on to help explore and unlock the wonders of the oceans still unknown to humankind or science'.

But unlike other Virgin ventures, Virgin Oceanic aims to explore, not commercialize, the ocean depths.
The Virgin Oceanic project will include five dives over the next two years to the deepest part of each of Earth’s five oceans. The first dive will be piloted by Chris Welsh, into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest part of Earth’s seas.

The single person sub has an operating depth of 37,000ft (7 miles); it is capable of operating for 24 hours with aid. It is made from 8,000 pounds of carbon fiber and titanium. Unlike traditional submarines which use ballast to dive, it is a winged design, and will fly downward into the depths.

The second dive will be bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, and that will be piloted by Sir Richard Branson himself. This trench is the deepest spot in the Atlantic Ocean at over than 5 miles in depth.

Subsequent dives will carry a human pilot to the bottom of the Arctic, Southern and Indian oceans. Says Sir Richard: 'Less than 3% of the seafloor has been explored, and none of the deepest points of the planet have ever been explored beyond a brief visit to one. The opportunities to see and learn from these dives are monumental!'
Prior to its first deep dive, the submarine will undergo three months of pressure testing. It was noted that submarines quartz cockpit 'dome' will be under 13 million pounds of pressure, which is the weight of three space shuttles. An implosion in the depths would be fatal for the occupant.

This will be the first time since 1960 that humans have seen the Mariana Trench. On that occasion, the bathyscaphe, Trieste (which moved straight up and down like a hot air balloon) briefly touched down carrying co-pilots Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard. This time, Chris Welsh will not only to reach the deepest point on Earth, but then be able to 'fly' along the bottom of the Trench an additional 10 kilometres (nearly 6 miles).

Although the Mariana Trench is the most explored in detail, its unique combination of deep-sea features in a relatively confined area make it a rich scientific target. From blue serpentine mud volcanoes, to 700º hydrothermal vents, to a subduction zone where the Pacific plate is diving under the Philippine plate – the Mariana Trench has a lot to keep researchers busy.

In addition to the sub itself, there will also be a number of autonomous landers that will collect further scientific data and samples as well as capture footage of the submersible as it passes by.

Microbiologist Dr. Doug Bartlett of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and other scientists are keen to carry out tests on the water and bottom sediments the landers will bring back. The landers will be armed with bait, motion-activated cameras and lights, as well as sampling equipment to collect water and bottom sediments. The landers will be deployed ahead of the dive and will self-release their ballast – returning to the surface a day after the dive. With sonar locators, the sub should be able to rendezvous with the landers and see what marine life they have attracted.

The water samples they will obtain are not merely a litre or two, but the product of a pump and filter assembly that will circulate 20,000 liters through a filter fine enough to separate microbial and viral particles from the stream. Thus, a far greater amount of material is brought back and sample volumes are large enough to do DNA testing. The Scripps team will study samples brought back from the depths and look for any novel organisms as well as potentially beneficial enzymes or genes.

The Mother ship
Virgin Oceanic’s Chief Pilot, Chris Welsh, upon meeting adventurer Steven Fossett, was greatly impressed by the sight of Fossett’s giant racing catamaran, the 125' Cheyenne.

Fossett had conceived of a record-setting solo submarine dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. The project would be supported by converting his 125' racing catamaran, Cheyenne, into the mothership and support vessel. It was only fitting since Cheyenne was built to (and did) shatter sailing speed records. Now she would help break another record. Chris was instantly captivated and set his sights on completing Steve’s mission to the deepest part of the planet. He also expanded the project from a single solo dive to the current goal of five oceans, five dives, exploring the deepest depths in each of the five oceans of the world.

Instead of just crossing the Pacific to Guam and coming back, it is likely the cat will be covering over 25,000 miles of open ocean over the next two years.

It will be Spartan conditions onboard for the crew. The catamaran has berths for a racing crew of 12 (six in each hull). The 'inside' of the cat is all within the two narrow hulls so passageways in the ship are just shoulder-width with bunks laid to one side of the hull. The hulls are mirror images of each other, with one housing a state-of-the-art navigation station and the other a minimal galley.

Out on the deck it is far from being cramped. In fact, it feels more like being underneath a giant trapeze. Slung between each hull and underneath the special sling for the sub there are large nets known as the trampoline which crew must brave to be able to move around the catamaran.

A crane rises above the mid-point, standing by to lift the 3,600 kg (8,000 lb) sub off its rolling cradle, which can slide back out of the way, and lower the sub straight down into the water through a hole in the deck, also known as 'the moon pool'.

Generators on board as well as power systems on the engines provide power to enable satellite navigation, lights, scientific equipment, music, and of course the communications systems that will allow crew to send updates from the cat as it journeys around each of the planet’s oceans.

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