Racing to the Bottom: Exploring the Deepest Point on Earth

Teams led by Richard Branson, James Cameron, and some unknown guy from Florida are all hoping to make it to the Mariana Trench

TriesteWikiCommons-Post.jpg

At the southern end of the Mariana Trench, a deep scar that cuts into the bottom of the ocean floor, there is a point known as Challenger Deep. Here, just outside of the Marianas or Ladrones, a series of 15 islands made up of volcanic mountains that peak just above the water line, a small slot-shaped valley plunges nearly seven miles down. At 35,797 feet, Challenger Deep is the deepest known point in the oceans. It is so deep that, if you were able to place Mount Everest inside of the valley, there would still be 6,811 feet of water separating it from the surface.

At just 7,000 feet down, about where the tallest mountain in the world would peak, the pressure becomes so great that whales rely on unique evolutionary traits when hunting for giant squid. Whales have lungs that can collapse safely under pressure and ribs bound by soft cartilage that allows the cage to shift and settle in extreme environments rather than snap. Without similar anatomical gifts, we don't know much about what happens below that level. Imagine what creatures might live at depths five times greater than where whales and giant squid battle in the pitch-black ocean.

We've been there once before, to the bottom of Challenger Deep. But we didn't see or learn much. On January 23, 1960, Jacques Piccard suited up, plopped down inside of Trieste, and sank to the ocean floor. The Swiss-designed, Italian-built, U.S. Navy-owned Trieste is an inelegant machine. The observation gondola, a sphere welded to the bottom of the ship's main flotation system, has walls that measure five inches thick and a tiny, cone-shaped Plexiglas window.

Story continues after the gallery.

After spending nearly five hours sinking to the bottom of the ocean, Piccard and Don Walsh, a Navy Lieutenant that accompanied him, were only able to peer through the Plexiglas while shivering in the 45-degree capsule and munching on chocolate bars for sustenance. Surrounded by a cloud of sediment that Trieste had kicked up when it smacked into the ocean floor, Piccard and Walsh couldn't see a whole lot from their window, which had cracked on the way down. What they did see, though -- a variety of sole and flounder, two types of flatfish -- proves that at least some vertebrate life can handle the extreme pressure in one of the Earth's most extreme places. Twenty minutes later, Trieste dumped tons of magnetic iron pellets and spent three hours rising back to the surface.

Now, more than 50 years later, humans are nearly ready to return to Challenger Deep. This time, though, they're planning to stay a while, collecting samples, videotaping whatever might be down there, sending out small remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and then bringing home $10 million. Earlier this year, the X Prize Foundation made that prize money available to the first privately funded submersible to make two visits to Challenger Deep. This money, though, is little more than proof that humans are fascinated with the extreme: climbing Mount Everest, walking on the Moon, searching the floor of the ocean. Ten million dollars will only cover a fraction of the race to the bottom. And it is indeed a race; one with at least three competitors, each close to claiming the prize.

* * *

RICHARD BRANSON'S VIRGIN OCEANIC

Billionaire Richard Branson is known for the hundreds of companies that fall under the Virgin Group umbrella, including Virgin Megastores, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Records and Virgin Galactic, his space tourism company that aims to bring passengers into sub-orbital space for $200,000 a head. As part of his team perfects SpaceShipTwo, the plane that will fly more than 60 miles above the Earth as those inside gleefully float about the cabin for six minutes of weightlessness, another crew is busy preparing a kind of ship meant to take humans in the opposite direction.

Branson's team, led by legendary submersible designer Graham Hawkes and chief pilot Chris Welsh, has been planning to take the Virgin Oceanic out for water tests as early as this summer, but, due to setbacks, no date has been confirmed. In early rounds of laboratory testing, the borosilicate viewing bubble through which the Oceanic's crew would peer out at the ocean floor cracked under just 2,200 pounds per square inch of pressure, about one-eighth of the 16,000 psi expected at Challenger Deep.

Story continues after the gallery.

The 8,000-pound, 18-foot-long submersible that Hawkes has designed "represents a transformational technological advance in submarine economics and performance," according to Virgin Oceanic's official website. "The submarine provides the currently unequalled capability to take humans to any depth in the oceans and to truly explore." Taking some of the most elegant creatures of the sea as inspiration -- whales, dolphins and rays -- the Virgin Oceanic uses two sets of wings to fly through the water.

The Virgin Oceanic will be carried out to sea and launched by an enormous 125-foot racing catamaran that was once owned by adventurer, aviator and sailor Steve Fossett. Welsh, the pilot for the submersible who made his money in real estate and then decided to take to the seas, purchased the catamaran after Fossett disappeared in a single-engine airplane over the Nevada desert in 2007. He traveled to Fossett's estate to close the deal on the Cheyenne and was sold on the Challenger, the original name for what would become the Virgin Oceanic, as well.

JAMES CAMERON'S DEEP CHALLENGE TEAM

The Avatar and Terminator director is an explorer first and a filmmaker second. The box office-breaking Titanic wasn't on Cameron's radar as a Hollywood project because he knew it could earn huge dividends, rather, he has long been obsessed with the famous sinking of the ship. He has made several trips to the wreckage, shooting footage using 3-D cameras he designed himself to capture the 100-year-old ship as it has never been seen before. He plans on using some similar technology at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Admittedly, Cameron doesn't care if he's the first (well, the first of this group) to reach the bottom ... he just wants to be the best. Cameron's team is working on building what appears to be the most high-tech (and least reliant on a tourism-based model to fund future exploration) submersible. The as-yet-unnamed project will include a giant lighting array, several 3-D high-definition cameras, an arm that can grab samples from the ocean floor and a small ROV similar to that used to swim in and around the Titanic wreckage, according to an email that Cameron sent to Outside's Anna McCarthy.

Unlike Branson's Virgin Oceanic, Cameron's Challenger Deep project has passed pressure tests; at a Penn State University lab, the team turned the dials to 16,000 psi and waited. Nothing. But at what cost? Nobody knows how much time or money Cameron has put into this submersible, about which he has been pretty tight-lipped since kicking off the design stage with a couple of sketches in 2003. Now, more two dozen people are working around the clock to prepare the sub for sea trials next April.

BRUCE JONES' TRITON SUBMARINES

Bruce Jones is the odd man out in this triumvirate. And that's because you have no idea who Bruce Jones is -- and you're not alone. Building a vessel that can safely sink to the bottom of the ocean is no easy feat; it's one that requires big backers with deep pockets, something that Jones doesn't have. While the 55-year-old entrepreneur has drawn up plans and marketing materials -- they call this project the "race to inner space!" -- he has not yet secured the funds to construct a prototype. He's currently shopping around the idea. "We're talking to a number of first clients because, quite frankly, we don't have the money to build one of these on spec," Jones told Outside.

Jones' Florida-based company is hoping to build a number of Triton 36,000s -- named for its maximum depth, obviously -- and sell them for about $15 million each to individuals who can shuttle people down to the bottom of the ocean for even more than Branson plans to charge for a space ride: $250,000 each.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In