China's deep-sea manned probe surpassed its operational depth of 7,000 metres yesterday, setting a national record for the country's sea-exploration programme.
Carefully orchestrated to coincide with the nation's first manual docking in space, the Jiaolong - or the Sea Dragon - completed the world's deepest manned dive in a manoeuvrable submersible, touching the sea floor at 7,020 metres below the surface in the West Pacific's Mariana Trench, which goes to a depth of around 11,000 metres - the deepest in the oceans.
The dive set a domestic record and showed the country was capable of exploring 99.8 per cent of the world's ocean floors.
However, one analyst said China's next deep-sea plan was even more ambitious. Encouraged by the success of Jiaolong, it plans to soon begin construction of a deep-sea station to match its rapid march into space. Photos and samples collected by Chinese divers from regions with potential mineral or energy deposits would also give China solid claims in future diplomatic negotiations regarding treasures at the bottom of oceans, the analysts say.
The dive was accomplished by three crewmen. Captain Ye Cong, a senior engineer with China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation's 702 Research Institute and a key designer of the ship, controlled the diving, manoeuvres and surfacing.
Professor Liu Kaizhou, with the Shenyang Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is a scientist specialising in artificial intelligence, and was in charge of the onboard scientific equipment such as the deep-sea camera, sensors and sample collector - a robotic arm used to handle sophisticated tasks.
Professor Yang Bo, another academy scientist with the Institute of Acoustics, monitored and maintained communication between the submersible and its mother ship, the Xiangyanghong 09. Most communication was carried out via military-grade underwater acoustic devices that the institute developed for the mission.
The strength of Jiaolong's construction and design was proven by the dive. The 22-tonne submersible has a multilayered shell made of fibreglass and titanium alloys. The exterior design was completed at the 702 Research Institute, but manufacturing of the hull was outsourced to a military plant in Russia, said a scientist who recently retired from the project.
The Jiaolong has six propellers powered by batteries. Able to carry three people and more than 200 kilograms of equipment, it stayed underwater for about 12 hours. It had suffered some equipment problems, such as leaking pipes after repeated dives in the past few weeks, but the problems were solved and the crew reported no major problems during yesterday's dive.
Song Xiaojun, a former naval officer, told China Central Television yesterday China would soon begin construction of a manned deep-sea station to rival Russia and the United States in the field.
Tonnage of the Jiaolong submersible
- The craft is eight metres long and three metres wide