Up for the challenge? China to journey to the Mariana Trench

Mainland-developed submersible will in October follow Canadian director James Cameron's footsteps in exploring the Challenger Deep

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 July, 2015, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 9:43am

Mainland scientists will soon send a probe to explore the world's deepest sea floor for the first time, with devices to capture rare creatures and collect mineral samples.

The deep-sea probe will leave for the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean in October with the aim of landing in the Challenger Deep, says a scientist involved in the project.

The Challenger Deep is a small valley at the southern end of the trench about 11km under surface, the deepest point ever recorded in the world's oceans. Only four descents to the Deep have ever been achieved. The latest visit was by Canadian film director James Cameron in 2012 with submersible vessel Deepsea Challenger.

The Chinese probe was developed by researchers with the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Shenyang Institute of Automation in Liaoning and the Sanya Institute of Deep-sea Science and Engineering in Hainan .

It is less sophisticated than the Deepsea Challenger, being smaller and unable to move around after landing on the sea floor. The probe also has no room for passengers. Even so, there is hope that it can make exciting discoveries.

"It is designed to work beyond a depth of 11km. Our knowledge about what exists in that environment is still very limited due to the scarcity of descents," said Xing Luru, a research assistant in the Sanya institute who will join the mission.

The probe would carry high-definition cameras for photos and filming, she said. A television crew will also participate, likely with broadcasting equipment to beam live video feeds from the Deep to a global audience.

One of the probe's most exciting tasks is to capture animals living at the bottom of the trench. The scientists have developed a device to lure sea creatures into a trap, and the process will be filmed. The animals will then be brought to the surface for study.

Xing's team will record the sounds of animals in the trench.

"There is no light down there. Many creatures rely on sound for communication and hunting. We'd like to hear what they're saying," she said.

The project team completed a series of field tests on the probe and relevant devices this month, according to a report on the academy's website. The deepest reach of the tests was more than 3.7km. The exact schedule of the mission has yet to be finalised.

The probe may take several dives in shallower waters in the trench before heading to the bottom of the Deep.

Manned submersible Jiaolong will also join the mission to support the landmark descent.

Jiaolong is the world's deepest-going manned submersible. It can take three crews to depths beyond 7km, moving freely without a cable connecting it to the mothership, which was a necessity for the Deepsea Challenger.

Last year, Jiaolong dived 7.02km in the Mariana Trench and produced a high-definition map of the sea floor, which helped researchers pin down the landing area for this mission.

The mainland government was currently reviewing design proposals of a manned submersible more advanced than Jiaolong, according to scientists close to the project, with the aim of sending a Chinese crew to the Challenger Deep.