A Deep-Sea Expedition Of A Lifetime

Mar 24, 2012 By Deepa Gopal
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Update 3/25/12: James Cameron completed his deep-sea dive at 5.30pm EST on Sunday evening. He tweeted the following: “Just arrived at the ocean’s deepest pt. Hitting bottom never felt so good. Can’t wait to share what I’m seeing w/ you.”

Anytime now, history will be made. This time, by none other than James Cameron who directed the blockbuster movie, Avatar. The adventure-seeking Cameron and his team have set out from the tiny Pacific atoll of Ulithi and are waiting patiently aboard the mother ship for the seas to calm down.

Cameron hopes to become the third man, and the first solo person to descend more than seven miles into the deepest point on our Earth -- Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Stretching for 2,500 km and 70 km wide, the trench is a crescent-shaped channel just off the Mariana Islands. Because of its extreme depth, no sunlight reaches the bottom and the water is near freezing. What creatures might inhabit this inhospitable landscape?

Cameron's team completed an unmanned test run last month and were thrilled to see the sub return unscathed. He is ready for the real dive.

The Dive

Like a bullet fired into the trench, the torpedo-shaped sub aptly named "Deepsea Challenger" will descend 500 feet a minute vertically, reaching the ocean floor in 90 minutes! Cameron's capsule is no bigger than the first Apollo capsule that took mankind into space. At the bottom, Cameron's craft will be subjected to water pressures approaching 16,000 pounds per square inch. The sub will actually shrink by about 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters) during the descent!

On reaching the ocean floor, Cameron hopes to rendezvous with another unmanned lander sent down a few hours earlier carrying bait to lure deep-sea creatures. He will navigate through the valleys and crevices, collect samples with a slurp-gun, and of course capture amazing never-before-seen video footage. 

After six hours, the craft will drop off weights and ascend rapidly. If the weights don't drop, Cameron could be stuck down with very little oxygen. Scientists have built many contingencies including a remote-controlled weight drop from the surface. 

Where no man has gone since...

It was over fifty years ago, on 23rd January 1960, when two intrepid adventurers – Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard – reached the depths in a steel submersible called Trieste. 

When Walsh and Piccard touched down in a cloud of ocean-bed dust, the depth gauge read 10,911m – a little less than seven miles underwater. Above them was a good 200,000 tons of water! With that kind of pressure comes a great deal of danger and when Walsh and Piccard set out, they were not sure they would make it back. If the Trieste had not held up, they would have been crushed at such depths. And yet, they sat in the little capsule on the trench floor, ate a bar of chocolate, and lived to tell the tale!

The world will be anxiously awaiting what tales Cameron will come back with, and what wondrous creatures he might spy. This expedition may very well give us clues to what might exist beneath the thick sheet of ice on Jupiter's moon, Europa!

Courtesy National Geographic