Today, Sir Richard Branson, American sailor, pilot and explorer Chris Welsh, and submarine designer Graham Hawkes launched Virgin Oceanic, a project to explore "the last frontiers of our own Blue Planet: the very bottom of our seas." .
The project includes a partnership with Google: "Using their mapping technology, Google hopes to chronicle the dives as they happen and share discoveries, footage and record breaking achievements with the world."
Full launch announcement follows, along with more artist's conceptual images of the submarine and accompanying catamaran. Click each image for large.
"Virgin Oceanic will expand the reach of human exploration on our planet. By promoting and utilising new technology Virgin Oceanic will aid human kind's ability to explore our Oceans, assist science in understanding our eco system and raise awareness of the challenges facing our Oceans." Sir Richard Branson April 2011
Tuesday 5 April, Newport Beach, CA:
Sir Richard Branson and explorer Chris Welsh today announced plans to take a solo piloted submarine to the deepest points in each of the world's five oceans – the first time such a feat has ever been attempted.
More men have walked on the moon than have explored the depths of our planet – many more men. Virgin Oceanic will see the world's only submarine capable of taking a human being to such extreme depths make five dives over a two-year period, set up to 30 Guinness World Records and, by working with leading scientific institutions, open the eyes of the world to what lies in vast areas of the oceans for the first time in history.
The Virgin Oceanic Submarine and her pilots will travel deeper and explore further than any one in history.
Each dive will be piloted by different commanders with Chris Welsh diving to the Mariana Trench (36,201ft) with Sir Richard as back up pilot, and Sir Richard piloting to the Puerto Rico Trench (28,232ft) – the deepest trench in the Atlantic, which has never been explored before – with Chris Welsh acting as back up. The Virgin Oceanic sub has the ability to 'fly' underwater for 10km at depth on each of the five dives and to fully explore this unknown environment.
Five Dives, Five Oceans, Two Years, One Epic Adventure
Mariana Trench Pacific Ocean 11,033m 36,201ft
Puerto Rico Trench Atlantic Ocean 8,605m 28,232ft
Diamantina Trench Indian Ocean 8,047m 26,401ft
South Sandwich Trench Southern Ocean 7,235m 23,737ft
Molloy Deep Arctic Ocean 5,608m 18,399ft
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe that the deepest point of the Mariana Trench is 36,201ft – a depth not yet reached by humankind. Some experts believe that it will be impossible to reach a depth much below the current record of 35,911ft (set by a submersible that didn't have the capability to manoeuvre or explore) because of millions of year's worth of biological 'soup' at the bottom of the trench. They may well be correct but we simply don't know – with Virgin Oceanic's submarine's capability to explore at the bottom of the trench we aim to find out and, if possible, go deeper. The Puerto Rican trench is the deepest point in the Atlantic and no one has attempted to explore it before now.
The Virgin Oceanic submarine represents a transformational technological advance in submarine economics and performance. The submarine provides the currently unequalled capability to take humans to any depth in the oceans and to truly explore. It utilises the latest in composite technology and a completely unique flying wing to literally fly within the Ocean environment; creatures living here such as dolphins, whales and rays have shown us this winged approach is the best and most elegant way to range the seas. The submarine is many times less expensive to manufacture and operate than any of its less capable counterparts and is in harmony with its environment.
The submarine was originally commissioned by Sir Richard's close friend and fellow adventurer Steve Fossett who had intended to complete the first solo dive to the depths of the Mariana Trench. Sir Richard intends to finish what his friend started and then go on to help explore and unlock the wonders of the Oceans still unknown to humankind or science.
Sir Richard Branson on the launch of Virgin Oceanic: "What if I were to tell you about a planet, inhabited by 'intelligent' beings that had, in the 21st Century, physically explored 0% of its deepest points and mapped only 3% of its oceans by unmanned craft, when 70% of that planet's surface was made up of water. Then I tried to convince you that only 10% of the life forms inhabiting that unknown world, are known to those on the surface – you'd think I'd fallen asleep watching the latest sci-fi blockbuster! Then you discover that planet is Earth…
With space long ago reached by man, and commercial spaceflight tantalisingly close, the last great challenge for humans is to reach and explore the depths of our planet's oceans. The submarine will travel to the deepest trenches in our oceans and will allow its pilot not only to reach these depths but to explore for 10 kilometres on each of the dives.
Virgin Oceanic is working with some of the most eminent scientific institutions in the world to collate data and catalogue life forms that will never have been seen before by human eyes and are unknown to science. The ability to go deep and then explore has been a dream of these great Oceanic Institutes – that dream is now close to becoming reality.
We are also proud to be partnering with Google. Using their mapping technology, Google hopes to chronicle the dives as they happen and share discoveries, footage and record breaking achievements with the world.
We may well set a few Guinness World Records while we're at it – up to 30 I believe! Each dive will be the world's first solo dive to the bottom of the five deepest trenches in the world. So there's 5 just to start with! We will discover a whole new world. A world full of undiscovered species and for those who dream, a world where Spanish galleons have lain unplundered for centuries!"
Sir Richard Branson's partner in the venture and Virgin Oceanic's chief pilot is Chris Welsh, an American sailor, pilot and explorer: "The submarine is a unique design made from 8,000 pounds of carbon fibre and titanium. The pressure at the bottom of the deepest trench is 16,000 PSI or over 1,000 atmospheres – the quartz dome alone is under 13 million pounds of pressure, the weight of three space shuttles. No leak is tolerable; a leak would cut through stainless steel or human flesh and mean certain death. The depth is beyond the capabilities of any other craft, so rescue is impossible. It's like being on the dark side of the moon. Full pressure testing is to be carried out over the coming months and should it fail the mission will obviously have to be re-evaluated.
"Why go? Why not send a robot? Pictures of the top of Everest or, for that matter, the Moon are all interesting – but no substitute for actually going there! The view from the sub is extraordinary, like a fighter pilot's view. This gives the ability to truly explore. The Virgin Oceanic sub is a game changer for undersea exploration – with the ability to venture anywhere in our Oceans, with a modest mother ship and a fraction of the resources normally needed to explore regions like this."
I've had a personal interest in the oceans and enough understanding of science to appreciate the chance this gives for oceanographers everywhere to learn, examine, and prove theories they have been working on for years. We can do this for them. We've created a unique program of going to all of the institutions and offering our capabilities for all to share. They've told us what to seek out, where to go, and what results will have the most value. The HD video alone will add dramatically to the little knowledge of the deep that we have. It's exciting that the Virgin Oceanic Expedition will make this kind of difference."
About the Virgin Oceanic's Submarine:
Virgin Oceanic's Submarine, designed by Graham Hawkes, is the only piloted craft in existence that has 'full ocean depth' capability. The one person craft has an operating depth of 37,000ft (7 miles) and is capable of operating for 24hrs unaided. Once fully descended, the submarine's hydroplanes (the equivalent of wings for submarines) and thrusters will allow it to 'fly' up to 10km over the ocean floor whilst collecting video and data, something submersibles could only dream of.
At these depths, each individual part of the sub must be able to withstand enormous pressures, 1500 times that of an aeroplane, and protect its pilot from the extreme conditions just inches away. As Sir Richard and Chris each pilot the sub to the bottom of our planet, they will be aware that should anything go wrong, there is no rescue team that can reach them; whilst backed up by a mission crew, once at depth, the pilot and craft are alone.
Full pressure testing will be conducted over the next three months.
The craft will cruise at a max of 3 knots and can dive 350ft per minute, with a dive to the bottom of the Mariana trench and back estimated to take five hours.
As well as offering the chance for human endeavour and exploration, the Virgin Oceanic Expedition offers an unprecedented opportunity to conduct scientific research and to expand our knowledge of the unique conditions, ecosystems and geology that exist at the bottom of the oceans.
Virgin Oceanic will be working with a range of internationally renowned scientists, researchers and institutions to offer monitoring, data and sample collecting opportunities during the five dives.
Tony Haymet who has been Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Vice Chancellor for Marine Sciences, and Dean of the Graduate School of Marine Sciences at University of California, San Diego, since September 2006. Scripps will be one of VOE's key science advisers. Tony says: "It is high time that the ocean community return to the exploration of the ocean depths and the abyssal plains, the largest ecosystem on our planet. Scripps Oceanography looks forward to working with all the ocean community to marry our new generation of robotic ocean explorers with exciting new emerging technologies that will restart regular deep ocean exploration. We honor Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh by continuing the exploration they started at the Mariana Trench on January 23, 1960."
Another member of the team is Dr Katrina Edwards, the director of the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) at the University of Southern California (USC). Dr Edwards' work is primarily focused on geomicrobiology and microbal life; the study of how, and what type, of life survives and thrives in sediments and rocks at the bottom of the ocean.
Dr. Edwards commented on the opportunities Virgin Oceanic provides: "From the scientific perspective, my view is that this endeavour offers the opportunity to observe and make measurements in an environment that is otherwise not accessible to human exploration. This expedition offers a lens into microbial and other species' diversity at depth in our oceans, the most poorly accessible habitat on earth."
Further researchers and scientific partners involved in the Virgin Oceanic Expedition include:
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego – Microbiologist Dr Doug Bartlett is hunting for novel microbes and DNA present in the deep trenches and deep sea engineer Kevin Hardy is designing the lander vehicles that will help sample and bring back the microbes, water and possibly other small creatures from the depths.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) / University of Alaska, Moss Landing Marine Labs and University of Hawaii – Dr Geoff Wheat, Dr Sam Hulme and Dr Patricia Fryer respectively studying how tectonic plates interact through examining the rocks, mud flows, gases and liquids that are released on the floor of the trenches.
Ocean Research and Conservation Association – Senior Scientist and MacArthur Fellow Dr Edith Widder, a specialist in bioluminescence (the light produced by many ocean organisms) and novel ways to quantify and observe this activity unobtrusively.
Virgin believes that the Oceans offer exciting possibilities for human exploration and scientific research. Our vision through Virgin Oceanic is to explore the possibilities of enabling adventurers and pioneers to participate in oceanic exploration.
If we are successful in our mission with this innovative design of submarine, then we will have proven that a vehicle can be built to withstand the extreme pressures of the oceans and that it is possible to take humans at far reduced risks to the bottom of our Oceans. The submarine we unveil today will likely finish its days on display in a museum here in the US but if we can prove the design, Virgin may explore the possibility of future missions involving other submarines that can collect samples and operate tools or equipment to facilitate science and research. When we have developed the ability to explore, we will shortly afterwards require the ability to study, learn and innovate, reacting to the lessons and the opportunities that we discover in vast areas of our planet that we currently have no knowledge of. This is our vision.
About Virgin Oceanic's partnership with Google
"Our mission for Google Earth is to create an interactive virtual globe and enable users to visit places they've never explored, including the world's oceans," said John Hanke, Vice President of Product Management at Google. "More than 70% of the planet's surface is made up of water, yet only 5% of the world's ocean has been explored. We're excited to support Virgin Oceanic's plans to travel to parts of the planet where no one has gone before and be able to share their discoveries using Google Maps and Google Earth."
About Virgin Oceanic:
Virgin Oceanic was formed by the Virgin Group to act as a sponsor of and partner on the Five Dives Expedition. Chris Welsh, though his company Deep Sub LLC, owns and will operate the submarine. The expedition will require various regulatory approvals, including export licenses, which Deep Sub LLC will obtain.
About Graham Hawkes sub designer:
Graham Hawkes, has designed and built over sixty manned submersibles and over 350 Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs). Hawkes is known for his forward-thinking solutions and his innovative use of materials and systems. His underwater vehicles include the innovative Atmospheric Diving Suits (ADS) and ROVs, which dominated the offshore oil industry segment in the 1970s; the Deep Rover series for science and exploration, most recently used by filmmaker, James Cameron in the IMAX film, "Aliens of the Deep;" the Deep Flight series of submersibles; and the design/build of the experimental protoype DeepFlight Challenger, the only full ocean depth manned vehicle. He is recognized world-wide as a pioneer in innovating state of the art solutions for ocean access.
Key dates and timings:
Virgin Oceanic's first dive will be to the Mariana Trench later in 2011, and a further four dives are scheduled over the next 24 months, subject to receipt of all required regulatory approvals.