Image: Titanic sonar map
RMS Titanic via AP
This section of a sonar map shows the bow section of the Titanic shipwreck, lying within a 3-by-5-mile debris field.
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updated 3/12/2012 3:41:55 PM ET 2012-03-12T19:41:55

Researchers have pieced together what's believed to be the first comprehensive map of the entire 3-by-5-mile (5-by-8-kilometer) Titanic debris field and hope it will provide new clues about what exactly happened the night 100 years ago when the superliner hit an iceberg, plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic and became a legend.

Marks on the muddy ocean bottom suggest, for instance, that the stern rotated like a helicopter blade as the ship sank, rather than plunging straight down, researchers told The Associated Press.

An expedition team used sonar imaging and more than 100,000 photos taken from underwater robots to create the map, which shows where hundreds of objects and pieces of the presumed-unsinkable vessel landed after striking an iceberg, killing more than 1,500 people.

Explorers of the Titanic — which sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City — have known for more than 25 years where the bow and stern landed after the vessel struck an iceberg. But previous maps of the floor around the wreckage were incomplete, said Parks Stephenson, a Titanic historian who consulted on the 2010 expedition. Studying the site with old maps was like trying to navigate a dark room with a weak flashlight.

"With the sonar map, it's like suddenly the entire room lit up and you can go from room to room with a magnifying glass and document it," he said. "Nothing like this has ever been done for the Titanic site."

The mapping took place in the summer of 2010 during an expedition to the Titanic led by RMS Titanic Inc., the legal custodian of the wreck, along with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Mass., and the Waitt Institute of La Jolla, Calif.

They were joined by the History Channel and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Park Service is involved in the mapping. Details on the new findings at the bottom of the ocean are not being revealed yet, but the network will air them in a two-hour documentary on April 15, exactly 100 years after the Titanic sank.

The expedition team ran two independently self-controlled robots known as autonomous underwater vehicles along the ocean bottom day and night. The torpedo-shaped AUVs surveyed the site with side-scan sonar, moving at a little more than 3 miles per hour as they traversed back and forth in a grid along the bottom, said Paul-Henry Nargeolet, the expedition's co-leader with RMS Titanic Inc. Dave Gallo from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was the other co-leader.

The AUVs also took high-resolution photos — 130,000 of them in all — of a smaller 2-by-3-mile (3-by-5-kilometer) area where most of the debris was concentrated. The photos were stitched together on a computer to provide a detailed photo mosaic of the debris.

The result is a map that looks something like the moon's surface, showing debris scattered across the ocean floor well beyond the large bow and stern sections that rest about half a mile apart.

The map provides a forensic tool with which scientists can examine the wreck site much the way an airplane wreck would be investigated on land, Nargeolet said.

For instance, the evidence that the stern rotated is based on the marks on the ocean floor to its west and the fact that virtually all the debris is found to the east.

"When you look at the sonar map, you can see exactly what happened," said Nargeolet, who has been on six Titanic expeditions, the first in 1987.

Kirk Wolfinger, Rushmore DeNooyer, and Tony Bacon
Robert F. Bukaty  /  AP
Kirk Wolfinger, top left, Rushmore DeNooyer, and Tony Bacon of the Lone Wolf Documentary Group, work at an editing station on Thursday in South Portland, Maine. The editors are putting the final touches on a History Channel documentary about the mapping of Titanic debris field.

The first mapping of the Titanic wreck site began after it was discovered in 1985, using photos taken with cameras aboard a remotely controlled vehicle that didn't venture far from the bow and stern.

The mapping over the years has improved as explorers have built upon previous efforts in piecemeal fashion, said Charlie Pellegrino, a Titanic explorer who was not involved in the 2010 expedition. But this is the first time a map of the entire debris field has looked at every square inch in an orderly approach, he said.

"This is quite a significant map," he said. "It's quite a significant advance in the technology and the way it's done."

At Lone Wolf Documentary Group in South Portland, producers are putting the final touches on the History Channel documentary. Rushmore DeNooyer, the co-producer and writer of the show, points out the different items on the map, displayed on a screen.

They include a huge tangle of the remains of a deckhouse; a large chunk of the side of the ship measuring more than 60 feet long and weighing more than 40 tons; pieces of the ship's bottom; and a hatch cover that blew off of the bow section as it crashed to the bottom. Other items include five of the ship's huge boilers, a revolving door and even a lightning rod from a mast.

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By examining the debris, investigators can now answer questions like how the ship broke apart, how it went down and whether there was a fatal flaw in the design, he said.

The layout of the wreck site and where the pieces landed provide new clues on exactly what happened. Computer simulations will re-enact the sinking in reverse, bringing the wreckage debris back to the surface and reassembled.

Some of those questions will be answered on the show, said Dirk Hoogstra, a senior vice president at the History Channel. He declined to say ahead of the show what new theories are being put forth on the sinking.

"We've got this vision of the entire wreck that no one has ever seen before," he said. "Because we have, we're going to be able to reconstruct exactly how the wreck happened. It's groundbreaking, jaw-dropping stuff."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: 10 shipwrecks that have enriched our imaginations

  • Image: scroll fragment
    Ralph White  /  Corbis file

    The Titanic, the 46,000-ton "unsinkable" ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 and sank within hours to the bottom of the North Atlantic, is the world's most famous shipwreck. To this day, the voyage, its passengers, even the mysterious Cold War details surrounding its 1985 discovery continue to capture the public's fascination. But the Titanic is not the only wrecked ship steeped in history — if not treasure — discovered on the bottom of the sea. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about nine more shipwrecks that have enriched our imaginations.

    -- By John Roach

  • An ancient Greek oil ship

    Image: pottery shards
    Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities

    An ancient Greek cargo ship, described by one researcher as a UPS truck of its day, sank with what appears to be a load of oregano-flavored olive oil. At least, that's the result of a genetic analysis of residue in one of the ship's earthenware jars that were hauled up from the 200-foot depths of the Aegean Sea where the ship sank around 350 B.C. The wrecked ship, which was discovered by an underwater robot, contained several hundred of the jars, called amphorae. More than two-thirds were of the style of the one containing the olive oil. Other containers likely held wine, a well-known export from the island of Chios.

  • Diamond geologists find sunken treasure

    Image: Gold coins
    AP

    Geologists hunting for diamonds off the coast of Namibia stumbled upon a different sort of riches when they hit upon a shipwreck full of copper ingots, elephant tusks and gold coins. The discovery was reported by Namdeb Diamond Corp, a joint venture between diamond giant De Beers and the government of Namibia. Preliminary analysis indicates the well-worn Spanish or Portuguese ship likely went down in stormy weather in the late 1400s or early 1500s. Judging from the cargo, researchers said the ship was likely looking for material to build cannons or was perhaps trading in ivory. This image shows coins and a brass divider recovered in the wreckage.

  • Santa Margarita loot a long trail of discovery

    Image: Pearls
    Dylan Kibler  /  AP

    In 1622, a fleet of 28 Spain-bound ships laden with gold, silver, copper and other riches reaped from the New World was snared by a violent hurricane in the Florida Strait. At least six of the boats sank, their loot no longer bound for the crown. Modern day explorers, however, have scoured the waters for the sunken treasure. Riches from the heavily armed Nuestra Se�ora de Atocha started coming to light in the 1970s and the scattered fortunes of a second ship, the Santa Margarita, were hit upon in 1980. In more recent years, divers from Blue Water Ventures Key West have been hot on the Santa Margarita's trail, recovering millions worth of treasure including the pearls shown here.

  • Captain Kidd's ship discovered in Dominican Republic

    Image: possible wreckage
    Indiana University

    The wreckage of the Quedagh Merchant, a ship abandoned by Scottish privateer William Kidd in the 17th century, has been discovered in shallow waters off a tiny island in the Dominican Republic and turned into an underwater preserve. Captain Kidd spent much of his life as a privateer – and captured the Indian-owned Quedagh Merchant which was laden with satin, silks, silver, gold, and other riches. But he abandoned the ship in 1699 to address charges in New York that he was a pirate, not a privateer. According to historians, the men entrusted with the ship looted it, burned it, and set it adrift. It was found just 70 feet off the coast of Catalina Island at a depth of only 10 feet.

  • Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge Found?

    Image: cannon
    Chuck Beckley  /  Jacksonville Daily News

    Archaeologists believe the cannon shown here being hauled up off the coast of North Carolina was part of the notorious pirate Blackbeard's flagship. According to legend, Blackbeard, whose real name was thought to be Edward Teach or Thatch, commandeered the French slave ship La Concorde in 1717 and renamed it the Queen Anne's Revenge. Blackbeard abandoned the ship when it ran aground off the North Carolina coast. Several artifacts recovered from the wreck appear to support the belief that it was Blackbeard's flagship, though the findings have been questioned by some scholars. Ongoing excavations may one day solve the mystery.

  • HMS Victory, famous British warship

    Image: archaeological site in Masada
    AP Photo/Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. |

    A famous British warship sunk by a violent storm in 1744 was discovered 330 feet deep in the English Channel, more than 50 miles from a group of rocky islets long implicated in the vessel's demise. The discovery exonerates the HMS Victory's commander, Sir John Balchin, and a lighthouse keeper near the rocks who was prosecuted for failing to keep the lights on, according to researchers with Odyssey Marine Exploration who found the sunken vessel that carried at least 900 men. What's more, the 110-gun ship is thought to contain 4 tons of gold coins. This image shows one of the ship's bronze cannons with the royal crest of King George I.

  • Court battles over $500 million shipwreck loot

    Image: Found coins
    Odyssey Marine Exploration via A

    The governments of Peru and Spain are caught up in court battles with a Florida-based exploration firm that recovered an estimated $500 million worth of silver coins from a Spanish frigate sunk by a British warship in 1804. Marine Odyssey Exploration announced the discovery of the treasure in 2007, though tried to keep the ship's origins and exact Atlantic Ocean location a secret. The details began to leak in 2008 as the Spanish government laid claim to the treasure if it indeed was from the sunken Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. Peru has since weighed in with a court challenge of its own, saying the coins were made with Peruvian silver and minted in Lima. In this file photo, Odyssey Marine Exploration co-founder, Greg Stemm, left, examines the loot with a co-worker at an undisclosed location.

  • Ore ship found, mystery endures

    Image: Ore freighter ship
    AP

    The discovery of an ore carrier some 460 feet beneath the surface of Lake Superior has only raised the intrigue over why the vessel sank on just its second voyage. The Cyprus was hauling iron ore from Superior, Wisconsin to Buffalo, New York, when it encountered a moderate gale on October 11, 1907. But the storm was insufficient to bother other ships that day. At the time, some mariners suspected water entered through the ships newly designed hatch covers, though a labor riot at the time of the vessels construction could have created other flaws. While this remains unsolved, shipwreck researchers have another mystery to resolve: The Cyprus was found 10 miles north of where its sole survivor said it went down. The ship on her maiden voyage is shown in this image.

  • Graf Zeppelin, unused Nazi Germany carrier

    Wojtek Jakubowski  /  AP

    The Polish Navy is almost certain they've located the remains of Nazi Germany's only aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin. The ship was launched in 1938, though it never saw action as Adolf Hitler's interest in the navy waned during World War II. The Soviet Union took control of the ship after Germany's defeat and used it for target practice in 1947, according to historical accounts. The carrier eventually sank but its exact whereabouts were unknown until the Polish Navy found remains with an underwater robot. In this image, Polish Navy Commander Daniel Beczek holds up a photo with three views of the ship: the top is a drawing, the middle is a sonar image made by the navy, and the bottom is a 1930s construction photo.

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