UPDATE: See more recent post Cameron Reaches Challenger Deep.
Filmaker and citizen explorer James Cameron has constructed the world’s deepest diving submersible. Piloting the single-seat Deepsea Challenger, he hopes to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth. Cameron is not alone in his venture, however. He is working with the National Geographic Society, Rolex, the Alfred Sloan Foundation, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Guam.
Cameron has already tested the Deepsea Challenger at depths of up to 26,000 feet, as reported in this CNN video.
The Challenger Deep, 6.8 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, has only been explored once before. That was in 1960 by the bathyscaphe Trieste carrying Swiss explorer Jacques Picard and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh. The Trieste could only spend 20 minutes on the ocean bottom, however. Cameron expects to spend six hours on the bottom, filming the entire journey with 3D high-definition cameras.
At least three teams are now trying to reach the Challenger Deep once again. Competing teams are led by Sir Richard Branson, who has launched the Virgin Oceanic project, and Patrick Lahey of Triton Submarines, LLC.
The competitors may hope to win a proposed Deep Human Submersible X-Prize. The prize is still under development, according to the X-Prize website. If Cameron is successful in his current attempt, it seems doubtful that the prize will be in place in time for him to win it.
The Deepsea Challenger is a great model for a citizen-science/exploration project conceived and run by a nonprofessional scientist with significant input from and participation by professional scientific organizations. It should be noted that the cost and technical complexity of a deep-diving submersible are comparable to a suborbital vehicle. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, a wealthy enthusiast like Cameron will buy an XCOR Lynx or Armadillo Hyperion and begin his own space-science research program.
Virgin Oceanic video