Photo of Virgin Oceanic sub in San FranciscoGallivanting billionaire Richard Branson is well on his way to space. Now he plans to explore the deepest parts of the ocean as well.

Branson announced his undersea exploration venture, Virgin Oceanic, on Tuesday. Unlike his suborbital-space-flight company, Virgin Galactic, the new venture is not accepting paying passengers. Instead, it will comprise only five deep-sea dives, each one carrying just one person, to the deepest points in each of the five oceans.

Virgin Oceanic tested its submarine in San Francisco Bay recently. Photo courtesy Virgin Oceanic.

To make the dives, Virgin has built a custom submarineand a flashy promotional video (see below). The sub’s cockpit has a bubble-like dome made of quartz, which can withstand 13 million pounds of pressure across its surface, Virgin says.

Overall, the sub looks a bit like an airplane, the better to “fly” to its underwater destinations. It weighs 8,000 pounds, is made of carbon fiber and titanium, and is rated to withstand pressure up to 37,000 feet below the surface. It’s not fast, though, with a maximum speed of just 3 knots and the ability to dive at 350 feet per minute, so its life-support systems are meant to last up to 24 hours.

In addition to its one human, the sub will have a water sampling system that can filter microbes and viruses from the water for later study. It will also be able to deploy unmanned probes. So far, the sub has only gone for a dip in San Francisco Bay.

Virgin Oceanic notes that sub was originally the brainchild of aviator and adventurer Steve Fossett, a friend of Branson’s, who crashed during a solo plane flight in 2007 but whose remains weren’t found until 2008.

To support and transport the sub, Virgin has retrofitted a 125-foot carbon-fiber racing catamaran with a crane, generators and lots of electronics.

The first dive will be to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a 36,201-foot canyon deep in the western Pacific. Humans have made it to the bottom of the Mariana Trench just once before, in 1960. The commander of that expedition, Jacques Piccard, later recounted the experience of that record-setting dive.

The second dive will be to the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, which at 28,232 feet below the surface is the deepest trench in the Atlantic Ocean. Branson himself plans to pilot the sub for this journey. Branson will be the backup pilot for the Mariana dive too, if his designated pilot is unable to do it. Three other dives are planned, each to the deepest point of other three oceans.

There’s a serious scientific purpose to Virgin Oceanic’s missions, Virgin says, with actual scientists lined up to make the most of these dives for their research into bottom-dwelling microbes, bioluminescence and seafloor geology.

But mostly, we suspect, it will be an excellent adventure for the man Wired magazine has called a “happy-go-lucky tycoon.” More power to you, Sir Richard. We’ll be watching for the IMAX movie.


Published on Virgin’s Richard Branson Plans Deep-Sea Diving Venture | Gadget Lab |