Search and rescue underway for missing titanic submersible

A large-scale operation is currently underway to locate a commercial submersible that has gone missing during a dive to the Titanic shipwreck. The US Coast Guard has reported that contact with the submersible was lost approximately one hour and 45 minutes into the dive, with five individuals aboard. The vessel was expected to return but was reported overdue at 9:13 pm local time on Sunday.

The expedition was organized by OceanGate, a US company, as part of an exclusive eight-day trip where guests paid $250,000 per person to visit the historic wreck site. As of Monday afternoon, US Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger stated that the submersible likely had a remaining oxygen supply ranging from 70 to 96 hours for the passengers.

The Titanic’s wreckage lies at a depth of around 3,800 meters in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 700 kilometers south of St. John’s, Newfoundland. The search and rescue teams are facing a daunting task in locating an underwater vehicle of this size, equivalent to a small bus, in such a vast and remote expanse of the ocean.

OceanGate’s Titan submersible goes missing

Submersibles are underwater vessels that resemble submarines but have a more limited range. They are primarily utilized for research, exploration, and the search for shipwrecks, as well as documenting underwater environments. Unlike submarines, submersibles usually feature a viewport for passengers to observe the surroundings and external cameras to provide a broader view.

The missing submersible in question is an OceanGate Titan watercraft, capable of carrying up to five individuals to depths of 4,000 meters. Measuring approximately 22 feet in length, the Titan can reach speeds of around 3 knots or 5.5 kilometers per hour. While submersibles are typically connected to a surface vessel through a tether, available footage and images suggest that the Titan was likely operating independently without such a connection.

OceanGate’s website states that the Titan is employed for various purposes, including site survey and inspection, research and data collection, film and media production, and deep-sea hardware and software testing.

Titan on the launch platform underwater, awaiting a signal to commence the dive. Credit: OceanGate

Additionally, the OceanGate Titan submersible is equipped with a “real-time hull health monitoring (RTM) system.” This advanced system likely incorporates strain gauges to continuously monitor the condition of the Titan’s carbon fiber hull. Strain gauges are sensors capable of measuring applied force and detecting small deformations in materials resulting from changes in pressure, tension, and weight.

The structure of the Titan consists of a carbon fiber hull that connects two domes composed of composite titanium. Titanium is a resilient material designed to withstand the immense pressures found at great depths in the ocean. At a depth of 3,800 meters, equivalent to the depth of the Titanic wreck, the pressure is approximately 380 times greater than the atmospheric pressure we experience on the Earth’s surface. The combination of a carbon fiber hull and titanium domes helps ensure the submersible’s ability to endure these extreme deep-sea pressures.

Communication and rescue efforts

The OceanGate Titan submersible would have established an acoustic link with its surface vessel using a transponder on its end, which receives sonar signals, and a transceiver on the surface vessel capable of both transmitting and receiving communications.

This acoustic link enables underwater acoustic positioning and allows for the exchange of short text messages between the submersible and the surface vessel. However, the data capacity for such communication is limited and typically includes basic telemetry and status information.

The Titan operates using battery power. Since all contact with the surface vessel has been lost, it is possible that a power failure has occurred. Ideally, there would be an emergency backup power source, such as an independent battery, to sustain critical emergency and life support systems. However, it remains uncertain whether the missing submersible had any backup power available.

Reports indicate that the search effort involves the use of at least two aircraft, a submarine, and sonar buoys. The sonar buoys are deployed to listen for underwater sounds, including any distress beacons that may have been activated.

One of the significant challenges in the rescue operation will be dealing with adverse weather conditions, which will further narrow down the already limited search window.

Titan commencing a dive to 4,000m underwater. Credit: OceanGate

What might have happened?

In an ideal scenario, if the OceanGate Titan submersible lost power, it may have a built-in safety system designed to facilitate its ascent to the surface. This could involve the deployment of additional weights that can be released to increase buoyancy and enable the submersible to rise.

However, an alternative and more challenging situation would be if the vessel lost power and remained at the bottom of the ocean. This would present significant difficulties for recovery.

In the worst-case scenario, a catastrophic failure to the submersible’s pressure housing could have occurred. Despite the Titan’s carbon fiber hull being constructed to withstand extreme deep-sea pressures, any structural flaw or compromise could lead to implosion and pose a severe risk.

Another possibility is the occurrence of a fire on board, potentially caused by an electrical short circuit. Such a fire could jeopardize the vehicle’s electronic systems responsible for navigation and control. Fires in enclosed underwater environments are highly dangerous and can potentially incapacitate the crew and passengers.

Time is crucial in this search and rescue operation as the submersible’s limited oxygen and water supplies are running out.

There is an ongoing debate within scientific circles regarding the merits of manned submersibles, considering the inherent safety risks involved. Many underwater research and offshore industrial activities now rely on unmanned and robotic vehicles. While the loss of such vehicles may impact the work being conducted, the absence of human lives at stake is a significant advantage. These recent events will likely spark intense discussions regarding the risks associated with utilizing manned systems for deep-sea tourism and exploration.

Source: The Conversation

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