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Space tourism company to plumb the ocean's depths

Space tourism company to plumb the ocean's depths

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The Virgin Group's latest venture, Virgin Oceanic, will man a deep sea submarine to explore the deepest point in the ocean.

Virgin Galactic, a private spaceflight company, has its sights set on bringing tourists to the stars. But the company's founder, billionaire Richard Branson, has a new frontier in mind: the bottom of the sea.

In a feature in this month's issue of IEEE Spectrum, Eliza Strickland chronicles the latest developments of Virgin Oceanic -- the deep sea offshoot of Branson's Virgin Group. Teaming up with the lucky owner of deep sea submersible, Chris Welsh, the group plans to plummet to the depths of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world's oceans, for science and "bragging rights," in Strickland's words. And, of course, "if all goes well with Virgin Oceanic’s solo sub, the company plans to build a two-seater to hold a tourist in addition to a pilot."

The voyage has been made once before in 1960, when two men dropped to the bottom of the trench in a bathyscaphe, the Trieste. But this submersible is something different:

Think of [sub designer Graham] Hawkes’s machine as an underwater flyer, one whose stubby wings generate hydro­dynamic forces to pull the vehicle down into the abyss rather than up into the air... [T]he pilot will lie inside a cylindrical pressure hull made of carbon fiber. “It’s the strongest, lightest material we know on the planet,” says Hawkes, and it’s the main reason why the sub weighs only 3600 kilograms. A full-ocean-depth sub built around a steel sphere would weigh about 10 times as much, says Hawkes. The six manned deep-sea submersibles operated by government agencies around the world are so heavy that they require specially equipped and enormously expensive mother ships to launch them, while Hawkes’s sub is designed to be hauled atop, and launched from, any reasonably large boat.

However, Virgin Oceanic isn't not alone in aiming to dive deep.

No fewer than four private companies are designing or building manned submersibles capable of reaching the lowest of the low. James Cameron, the director of blockbuster movies like Avatar andThe Abyss, is financing the construction of a one-person vehicle that will likely be studded with cameras. Triton Submarines, located in Florida, has designed a sub that would bring three people down to the seafloor in an innovative glass pressure vessel, which would certainly give passengers a great view. Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, a California company with funding from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, is also designing a three-person sub.

Before the sub, which Hawkes has dubbed the DeepFlight Challenger, can plumb the depths, there are a number of kinks that need to be worked out, reports Strickland.

However, if all goes as planned with both ventures, within a few decades we may be able to tour both the deep sea and the stars.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure