The recent incident involving the loss of the OceanGate submarine, Titan, during a deep-sea exploration mission to the Titanic wreck has raised plenty of questions about the safety and feasibility of such ventures. The main cause of the submarine’s predicament is believed to be the immense pressure exerted at extreme ocean depths, along with possible design flaws and alleged regulatory oversights.
Please See The NPR Website For An Image of the craft.
The Crushing Depths
The ocean is a hostile environment, especially at the depths where the Titanic rests. The shipwreck lies in the dark bathypelagic zone, about 12,400 feet (3.78 km) below the ocean’s surface. Here, the pressure is approximately 375 atmospheres—that’s a staggering 5,500 pounds (ca. 2,495 kg) of force on every square inch of an object’s surface. Such pressures are greater than the bite force of a crocodile or a great white shark, which have been measured up to 3,700 and 4,000 psi, respectively1.
Surviving in this environment requires submersibles to be built from strong materials and possess a shape that can withstand the water pressing in from all sides. Most submersibles are spherical to cope with these pressures, but the Titan was cylindrical. Along with the immense pressure, deep-sea submersibles must also manage the oxygen supply for their passengers, carbon dioxide scrubbers to prevent suffocation from exhaled breath, a heating system to withstand the cold, and sensing and navigation systems to guide the vessel1.
Design Decisions and Rule-Breaking
The OceanGate CEO, Stockton Rush, had previously acknowledged breaking some rules in the construction of the Titan. In a video interview, Rush stated that he had chosen acrylic—a type of plexiglass—for the seven-inch-thick window on the submarine. This window, the only means of looking out onto the Titanic wreck, would get squeezed about three-quarters of an inch at the target depth, giving a warning crackle if it was about to fail. While acrylic is known for its strength and resilience, the decision to use it in the Titan’s construction is being scrutinized, particularly given the CEO’s admission that he had “broken some rules to make this”2.
Rush defended his decisions, stating that he believed he had broken these rules with logic and good engineering behind him. He suggested that the rules he broke were those that could add value to others and society, equating it with innovation2.
Regulatory Concerns and Future Implications
Following the incident, experts have begun questioning the regulatory framework for deep-sea activities. There’s speculation about the underwater noises detected by rescue crafts, and it’s predicted that the incident will trigger an investigation into how deep-sea activities are regulated in the future. The quest for exploration and innovation cannot overshadow the need for safety and adherence to established rules and standards2.
Rescue and Recovery
Finding and recovering the Titan will be an immense challenge. The extreme depths, combined with the total darkness of the ocean floor, make it difficult to locate an object the size of the Titan. It’s believed that the Victor 6000 remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is the only machine on-site capable of reaching the sea bed to explore. However, it’s not equipped to lift the Titan; it would have to attach some device to the submersible for recovery efforts2.
While the future of deep-sea exploration remains uncertain, this incident serves as a stark reminder of the dangers that come with pushing the boundaries of human endeavor