The Life Aquatic with Richard Branson

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Not content with taking paying passengers to the edge of space, British business tycoon, adventurer, and self-publicist extraordinaire Richard Branson has just announced another adventure in the other direction: to the bottom of the ocean.

The tiny one-man submarine his team has developed has a maximum speed of 3 knots and life support capacity of 24 hours, although it’s hoped the entire round trip will be no longer than five hours down then up again.

Whatever your opinion of Branson and his business empire, you have to admire the astonishing engineering involved in creating a sub like this.

It’s capable of operating at a depth of seven miles. The water pressure at that depth is over 1,000 atmospheres. The dome covering the pilot’s seat isn’t made of glass, it’s carved from a single chunk of solid quartz. Glass would never withstand the pressure.

The submarine was designed by Graham Hawkes, and originally commissioned some years ago by Branson’s friend and fellow adventurer Steve Fossett, who died in a plane crash in 2007.

The Virgin Oceanic isn’t just a technology project, it’s a science project. The aim, over a series of dives in the next two years, is to gather data about the world’s deepest ocean trenches. The first dive into the Mariana Trench will be piloted by Chris Welsh. Branson will take the controls for a later dive to explore the Mariana Trench and return to the surface with samples.

The mission has been cleverly thought out. Before the dives begin, remote-control robot landers will be sent down, armed with bait to attract wildlife, and festooned with cameras which can be used to film the sub as it swooshes by.

It won’t be the first time the Mariana has been explored. Two brave explorers, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard, went down in a vessel called Trieste back in 1960. It could only travel up and down, though. Hawkes’ design has “wings”, inspired by rays, enabling it to “fly” around underwater, gliding on ocean currents.

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