As of 5:52pm Eastern Time Sunday, filmmaker and explorer James Cameron landed at the deepest point in the ocean, as first reported by members of the National Geographic expedition.
His first words, upon hitting 35,756 feet below sea level, were, "All systems OK."
Cameron's quest, part of the Deepsea Challenge, is to be the first person to make a solo dive to the deepest part of the ocean, an area of the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench known as the Challenger Deep. He is the third person to reach this valley in the ocean floor, which is located southwest of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.
He is collecting data, specimens and seeing more than the other two explorers who made it to the Challenger Deep in 1960 (see photos here) but saw little more than the silt they stirred up with their bathscaphe, a self-propelled vehicle used for deep-sea dives.
Cameron, known for blockbuster movies such as Avatar and Titanic, plans to spend as long as six hours in the trench. He will first aim to rendezvous with an unmanned vehicle that was dropped into the trench hours before.
Using sonar, "I'm going to attempt to rendezvous with that vehicle so I can observe animals that are attracted to the chemical signature of its bait," Cameron told National Geographic News.
His route will then take him through the most diverse environments as possible in six hours, allowing him to see the sediment-covered seafloor as well as cliffs of interest to geologists.
"I'll be doing a bit of a longitudinal transect along the trench axis for a while, and then I'll turn 90 degrees and I'll go north and work myself up the wall," he said.
When he's done, he will jettison steel weights that are attached to the sub, allowing him to speed back the seven miles back up to the surface, where the expedition's scientific support team awaits him aboard two research ships.
It took seven years to build the the 24-foot-tall vehicle that can descend about 500 feet a minute; projections put his descent to the Challenger Deep at about 90 minutes.
As National Geographic News describes it, the vehicle is "engineered to sink upright and spinning, like a bullet fired straight into the Mariana Trench.... By contrast, some current remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, descend at about 40 meters (130 feet) a minute ...."
In order for the vehicle to withstand the equivalent of eight tons of pressure on every square inch, the sub was outfitted with custom-designed foam filling and a pressure-resistant "pilot sphere."
In order to gather samples, the sub also has a sediment sampler, a robotic claw, a "slurp gun" for sucking up small sea creatures for study at the surface, and temperature, salinity, and pressure gauges.
Additionally, the sub features several 3-D cameras that will be rolling not only for planned documentaries but also, as Cameron told National Geographic News, because "there is scientific value in getting stereo images.... You can determine the scale and distance of objects from stereo pairs that you can't from 2-D images."
The sub will also be lighting the deep with an eight-foot tower of LEDs.
Before the dive, Cameron was already pondering sequels. He may next add a thin fiber-optic tether to the ship, which "would allow science observers at the surface to see the images in real time," he told National Geographic News. "And phase three might be taking this vehicle and creating a second-generation vehicle."
Marine biologist Doug Bartlett, chief scientist for the Deepsea Challenge, said this expedition could "represent a turning point in how we approach ocean science.
"I absolutely think that what you're seeing is the start of a program, not just one grand expedition."
Related on SmartPlanet:
- James Cameron on his dive: 'culmination of a lifelong dream'
- James Cameron's launch and dive surface (photos)
- James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge expedition (photos)
- Space tourism company to plumb ocean's depths
- Electricity revives near-dead Indonesian corals
Top photo: Crews conduct in-water testing in Papua New Guinea of Deepsea Challenger, the submersible that explorer and filmmaker James Cameron piloted to the bottom of the Mariana Trench as part of Deepsea Challenge, a joint scientific project by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)
Bottom photo: The Deepsea Challenger submersible begins its first 2.5-mile test dive off the coast of Papua New Guinea. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)