Exploration ambitions reach new Depths

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2012, 12:00am


A manned deep-sea submersible will soon attempt to set a Chinese record for the deepest dive, in a sign of the country's growing prowess in deep-sea exploration as a global race for natural resources intensifies.

The Jiaolong vessel will attempt a depth of 7,000 metres later this month or in early July. It departed yesterday from the eastern port city of Jiangyin in Jiangsu province, heading to the West Pacific's Mariana Trench - the deepest area in the world's oceans.

Xinhua reported that a three-man dive team was expected to spend more than 10 hours at that depth and would take samples. If successful, the Jiaolong 'could set the world's deepest record for an operation-aimed manned submersible', China National Radio reported.

About 100 scientists will monitor and provide support for the mission from aboard the Xiaoyanghong 09, which is transporting the Jiaolong to the trench.

China is one of just five countries to have sent a manned submersible to a depth of more than 3,500 metres, after the United States, France, Russia and Japan.

'The scientific expedition of the Jiaolong is aimed at benefiting mankind. The deep sea has amazing resources waiting to be discovered, such as hydrothermal sulfide and manganese nodules,' said the lead pilot of the Jiaolong, Ye Cong, 32.

Xu Qinan, chief designer of the submersible, said the mission was different than that of the Deepsea Challenger, which was piloted in March by filmmaker James Cameron to a depth of 10,898 metres - just above the lowest point of the trench.

'Cameron was the third person to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It was definitely an impressive act,' Xu said.

In 1960, an American mission sent two men to the same depth as Cameron reached and stayed there for about 20 minutes.

'Their spirit of adventure is very impressive. And what they did put the world's attention on deep diving, as well as benefiting the development of deep-diving technology.'

But the purpose of Cameron's Deepsea Challenger was for adventure and photography, and it could only carry one person, Xu said. The vessel also suffered two mechanical failures during the dive.

The Jiaolong is designed to operate at a depth of 7,000 metres, and its goal is to take three people to look for resources and conduct scientific research. A test dive to 5,000 metres last summer also showed that controls and systems on the Jiaolong could operate at that depth, and that the vessel could do multiple descents, Xu said.

But there are still substantial challenges for diving a further 2,000 metres, and the chief designer said a series of upgrades were carried out on the Jiaolong to strengthen its ability to operate at pressure of about 7,000 tonnes per square metre, and a temperature of about 1 degree Celsius. The team has also installed a better visual-transmission system and a GPS to help locate Jiaolong should it be caught in bad weather when returning to the surface.

If the dive is successful, China will be able to reach most of the world's seabed areas.


The length, in kilometres, of the Mariana Trench

- The Trench has a mean width of only about 69 kilometres