How low can you go?
May 28, 2006 11:06 PM   Subscribe

Project Nekton — Take Mt. Everest, add a mile to the top, and turn it upside down. That's how far oceanic explorers Jacques Piccard and USN Lt. Donald Walsh descended on January 23, 1960 into the Pacific's Challenger Deep, the lowest spot in Earth's oceans. Their submersible, the second-generation bathyscape Trieste, was designed by Swiss balloonist Auguste Piccard (Jacques' father) and built in Italy. This underwater balloon was buoyed by 70 tons of gasoline, ballasted by nine tons of steel shot, and dangled a cramped, six-foot diameter, 14 ton observation gondola underneath it [more Trieste photos here]. It took Piccard and Walsh nearly five hours to touch bottom 35,800 feet down in the Mariana Trench. Their unique voyage still stands 46 years later: no one has gone back—except by ROV—and more people have landed on the Moon.
posted by cenoxo (28 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder where Trieste is now? There's a little-known museum near Seattle which has a similar craft on display: the Trieste II.
posted by billb at 12:01 AM on May 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

The original Trieste is on display at the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington, DC (photo at bottom of page).
posted by cenoxo at 12:19 AM on May 29, 2006

great post. A dream came true for me last year when I went down in a submersible -- only to 150 m down but holy shit what a ride. Thanks for this.
posted by Rumple at 12:50 AM on May 29, 2006

Wow &mdash what astonishing courage. And an excellent, informative post.
posted by Haruspex at 4:38 AM on May 29, 2006

Oh, poop. Em dashes look lovely in preview, eh?
posted by Haruspex at 4:54 AM on May 29, 2006

This certainly is not the content I would have expected to find on a website called (first link) "BJs Online". Great post.

Can anyone explain why no-one else has attempted anything of this magnitude since, and why the prevailing opinion seems to be that "no-one ever will"? Is it perhaps because of the prohibitive cost of all that gasoline today :-) ?
posted by kcds at 5:33 AM on May 29, 2006

It is one atmospheric pressure for every 32 feet so roughly 1,119 times the pressure on the surface. It was once thought that "creatures of the deep" must be made of iron to survive without exploding. But it turns out, water does not condense (much), and cells are made almost entirely of water, so animals and plants exist fine (assuming they have time to pressurize). Another one of those magical properties of water we take for granted that makes life possible.
posted by stbalbach at 7:14 AM on May 29, 2006

Kcds, it's extremely expensive to keep humans alive in an utterly hostile environment. As with space exploration, I think it comes down to money and safety.

A gallon of gasoline weighs anywhere from 5.8 to 6.5 pounds, so 70 tons of the stuff in Trieste would total about 80,000-90,000 gallons. At today's prices for regular, it would cost over $200,000 to fill 'er up, not to mention the higher logistical costs (and substantial risks) of crewing, transporting, launching, retrieving, and maintaining a submersible, man-carrying gasoline tank.

It's faster, cheaper, easier, and far safer to send a remotely operated vehicle like Japan's Kaiko instead. Although certainly not cheap at $12 million a copy, it's very capable and its accidental loss can be replaced.

However advanced the probe, though, you can't replace the sheer chutzpah of landing two men on the bottom of the ocean and bringing them back again.
posted by cenoxo at 7:29 AM on May 29, 2006

had to login to mark this as a favorite. thanks, cenoxo. truly excellent post. and thanks, billb, for the pointer to the naval undersea museum. it's not the easiest place to get to (from Seattle, take a ferry). but i'll be in seattle this fall. now i plan to take a day to go see this.
posted by 3.2.3 at 8:23 AM on May 29, 2006

Very cool. I'm amazed so little has been done since these first trips.

kcds writes "Is it perhaps because of the prohibitive cost of all that gasoline today"
There is nothing saying they'd have to use gasoline or even this ship design. Mineral oil and alcohol are both lighter than water for example. Besides mostt of the gasoline is returned when the ship is decommisioned. Probably more operationally costly is the steel shot which can't be recovered.
posted by Mitheral at 8:26 AM on May 29, 2006

Correction: regarding Trieste's gasoline float capacity, Lt. Don Walsh's account puts it at 34,000 gallons. He also mentions various construction and operational details: the Piccards couldn't afford to dive Trieste after it was built, and thus sold it to the U.S. Navy in 1958.

A second dive into the Challenger Deep was planned, but the Navy changed its mind and reduced the Trieste's capability to 20,000 feet.
posted by cenoxo at 8:45 AM on May 29, 2006

i didn't see any photographs of what they saw down there? were there any taken, even from within the ship with a little point-and-shoot?
posted by shmegegge at 9:44 AM on May 29, 2006

shmegegge: I remember going to the deep sea exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium several years ago. They had a number of creatures in specially built pressurized tanks and a wall of colored pencil illustrations of the creatures seen by Piccard and Walsh. I've googled like crazy for those drawings, but can't find them. Here are some photos of some deep sea fauna, but not from that expedition.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:51 AM on May 29, 2006

Um, here's a better deep sea site. Still not the illustrations I remember seeing.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:58 AM on May 29, 2006

Neat stuff, thanks!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:02 AM on May 29, 2006

Heh - the sphere was designed for 36,000 feet and they took it down to 35,800. Ballsy.

What always blows my mind is not that a steel sphere can take the pressure but that the window can.
posted by Rumple at 11:11 AM on May 29, 2006

posted by dog food sugar at 11:14 AM on May 29, 2006

Nice post.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2006

Has anyone ever come across any explanation as to why some of the fish way down there look so monstrous? They look like they come fresh from a really bad dream.
"Did you see it? They said it was hauled from the Challenger Deep, but I'm positive that beast never swam in terrestrial waters until a week ago. There's a tranquillizer gun in the shark cage, but I'm not sure it would work on this species. You're welcome to try."
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:38 PM on May 29, 2006

Zack -- I am guessing the low food content of the water column and the absence of light makes very large eyes, or no eyes, a favoured solution (eyes can still pick up bioluminescence), luring prey with long dangly bits gives added weirdness, and huge snapping jaws with very long teeth maximize prey capture and retention. Because there is a mainly "sit and wait and pounce" strategy for carnivourous fish down there they need not be very hydrodynamic, or even have much of a body, so they can have huge heads and proportionally small bodies.This adds up to grotesqueness.

All that, plus with no light they don't need to look cuddly in order to get laid.

This ugly! page has a lot of information.
posted by Rumple at 1:21 PM on May 29, 2006

Shmegegge wrote: ...any photographs of what they saw down there?

I haven't found any online bottom images from the January 23, 1960 dive, but there are photographs in the article Man's Deepest Dive in the August 1960 National Geographic and in Jacques Piccard's 1961 book, Seven Miles Down [listed halfway down the page]. There are some online shots taken by the lost Japanese ROV Kaiko, but all they show are abyssal mud flats.

Although it has no bottom images, the site History of the Bathyscaph Trieste has many additional photographs, detailed histories, and personal accounts of the U.S. Navy's Trieste programs.

Rumple wrote: ...the sphere was designed for 36,000 feet and they took it down to 35,800. Ballsy

According to Don Walsh's article, Going the Last Seven Miles, Krupp Steel Works built the Trieste's pressure sphere (5" thick with a conical plexiglass viewing port) to go to 50,000 feet—a water pressure of over ten tons per square inch. The 1992 Invention & Technology article To the Bottom of the Sea describes Auguste Piccard's pressure tests in the late 1930's:
...He proceeded to carry out experiments, including testing a model of the thick-walled cabin at a pressure of 1,600 atmospheres, corresponding to a depth of ten miles. He also wrestled with the problem of portholes. The thick slabs of quartz Barton used had been brittle and barely adequate even at depths of less than a mile. Piccard thought of using glass shaped like a cone with a truncated peak opening outward within the steel; he would look through the narrow flat surface and gain a wide field of view, while the outside pressure would force the glass firmly against a seal and prevent leaks. High-pressure tests showed that even with this new design ordinary glass would crack. But in 1938 Piccard learned of a new material, Plexiglas. It had both strength and resilience and could withstand high pressures without cracking.
At the very idea of descending into such a deep black sea, I think everyone's gonads might shrink a little...
posted by cenoxo at 1:42 PM on May 29, 2006

Thanks Cenoxo. This site gives the 36,000 foot figure but yours sounds more authoratative.

Re: plexiglass, from the BJS article: At 30,000 ft. a sharp crack rang through the ship, shaking it violently. The water pressure outside wasmore than 6 tons per sqare inch., and even a slight fracture in the hull would have meant certain death. It proved to be only an outer Plexiglas windowpane which had splintered under the pressure. The inner hull remained watertight. "A pretty hairy, experience," admitted Walsh. Yeah, hairy.

Funny you mention the shrunken styrofoam cups. My dad went down in submersibles tons of times and we had a lot of those mementos around the house. I have some now from my own dive. But the funny bit is my sister won a fairly prestigious art prize partially on the basis of replicating those cups in a pressure tank, which the public found rather baffling.
posted by Rumple at 2:25 PM on May 29, 2006

Entirely cool post
posted by Smedleyman at 11:11 AM on May 30, 2006

seriously, right? i've been watching this thread for days just because of the supplemental links peole have been adding, to make no mention of the initial radularity (it's a word, haters) of the post itself.
posted by shmegegge at 12:34 PM on May 30, 2006

Rumple, if you don't mind sharing the details, what submersible did you dive in? And what did your Dad do?

When I was a boy, I got an officer-guided tour of an active duty (but docked) U.S. submarine. Had a look-see through the periscope, too!
posted by cenoxo at 6:36 PM on May 30, 2006

Arcturus is 36 light-years away. That's 216 trillion miles. And even with the "photons to spare" musings etc it is still one of those "by chance not design moments."

Stranger still if we look at it from the Buddha's point of view. He has a teaching called "The Law Of Interdependent Co-Arising" which means that all things do not exist separately from allother things and are interconnected. We neeed one thing to be there so tha the other can be there too. I have to be in my room in Barcelona at the moment with this rain outside today and my OJ on the foor beside me as I write this comment. In short "this is beacause that is"and "that is because this is".

So looking at this in relation to Arcturus. We it arise with all the other stars that give it it its defintion and place. The couds, the quality of the sky on earth, my eyesight, the contingent factor that these elements all come together in this moment to produce the perception etc. I wonder what would happen if we could find away to run numbers on that where we would be? Anyway I enjoyed the topic.
posted by bernardrudden at 12:13 AM on May 31, 2006

Cenoxo -- it was this one -- one driver, two passengers. Lie on your belly on a padded bench with electronic gear packed all around you, and you and your mate stick your head into a half dome plexiglass port, which gives you 180 degree view. The pilot sits behind you. Communication with the surface is just like in the movies, a really tinny voice "AQ, AQ, topside...." and every so often there is a loud PING as the mothership sonar ranging picks us up. Awesome experience. I got pictures at the office, tomorrow I'll try to load some into flickr.

My dad was a marine biologist (retired, but not really) and went down in the PISCES, an earlier model of this one. He studied corals and also vertical migration in plankton in the fjords of the BC coast.
posted by Rumple at 12:30 AM on May 31, 2006

When I was in Woods Hole (at the Marine Biological Laboratory) I totally took for granted the fact that Alvin was right down the street.

I have a lot of those shrunken styrofoam cups too (and one shrunken styrofoam head), but I wasn't deep down with them. They went down with our CTDs.
posted by nekton at 12:27 PM on June 1, 2006

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