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Billionaire's next feat: Plumb the ocean depths

Billionaire adventurer Richard Branson on Tuesday unveiled a new single-person submarine that he said will be used to set new world records by exploring the five deepest parts of the world's oceans.
Image: Sir Richard Branson sits on top of a solo piloted submarine during a photo opportunity at a news conference in Newport Beach
British billionaire Richard Branson sits on top of a solo-piloted submarine during a news conference in Newport Beach, Calif., at which he announced plans to launch the submarine to the deepest points of the world's five oceans.Alex Gallardo / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Billionaire adventurer Richard Branson on Tuesday unveiled a new single-person submarine that he said will be used to set new world records by exploring the five deepest parts of the world's oceans.

Branson said that over the next two years, the solo craft will go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic's Puerto Rico Trench and South Sandwich Trench, the Diamantina Trench in the Indian Ocean and the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean.

Branson's fellow explorer, Chris Welsh, plans to make the first descent later this year to the Mariana Trench, which at 36,000 feet is deeper than Mount Everest is high. Branson then plans to explore the 28,000-foot-deep Puerto Rico Trench.

While the pilots for the other three trips have not been chosen, Branson said they hope to set as many as 30 Guinness World Records with the dives.

"The last great challenge for humans is to explore the depths of our planet's oceans," the Virgin Atlantic founder said at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club.

Branson also said he plans to create a larger submarine that can hold more people and offer trips to tourists for a sizable fee.

A news release said there was only one frontier left for Branson's Virgin brand, which has reached "the seven continents of the Earth, up into the jet stream and soon, even into space."

"If someone says something is impossible, we like to prove it's possible," Branson said. "I love learning and I'm just very fortunate to participate in these kinds of adventures."

Branson unveiled the submarine, a nearly 18-foot-long, white-and-blue airplane-like craft with stubby wings and a cockpit.

The carbon fiber and titanium craft will be capable of cruising for about 6.2 miles and can stay down unaided for 24 hours. The sub and its accompanying catamaran cost an estimated $17 million.

Branson said his so-called Virgin Oceanic expedition will have a scientific and educational purpose. He hopes the voyages will help to educate the public about mankind's impacts on the world's oceans and marine life.

He is partnering with Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Moss Landing Marine Labs in Northern California as well as other research institutions. Scientists hope to study the tectonic plates and eventually use lander vehicles to bring back water, microbes and possibly small creatures from the ocean depths.

"We have 800 pounds of moon rocks and not one drop from the bottom of the ocean," said Alex Tai, Virgin Group director of special projects.

The dives will be dangerous and the pilots will likely be down in the dark and cold ocean depths for hours will little communication with the outside world. Rescues will be impossible, Welsh said. Still, he was clearly more excited than wary of the prospect, saying there is a magic to exploring new places.

"It's like going to the moon and having the lunar rover to explore around," Welsh said.

The dives also will be recorded and uploaded to Google Earth, said John Hanke, the Internet search engine's vice president of product management.

"Our mission for Google Earth is to create an interactive virtual globe and enable users to visit places that they've never explored, including the world's oceans," he said.

The submarine originally was commissioned by Branson's close friend and fellow adventurer Steve Fossett, who died in 2007 while flying a plane over the Sierra Nevada. Fossett had intended to complete the first solo dive to the Mariana Trench, Branson said.

Last year he unveiled a three-person submarine called the Necker Nymph, which is available for $2,500 a day for guests of his private resort in the Caribbean. The submarine, created by San Francisco-based Hawkes Ocean Technologies, is capable of going almost 100 feet deep. In a subsequent interview with Popular Mechanics, Hawkes officials said they were also working with Branson on submersibles capable of high-speed deep sea travel.

Branson has also been working on a space tourism venture with the construction of a $209 million spaceport in New Mexico. The British businessman has said he expects to launch the first suborbital flights from Spaceport America between mid-summer 2011 and spring 2012. Many of the 500 people that have signed up to be astronauts have expressed interest in being "aquanauts," he said.

While most of the country is still dealing with the daily realities of a struggling economy, University of California, Berkeley professor Robert Reich said the super-rich are richer today than they have ever been and there is a market in selling them new adventures.

High-end retailers such as Tiffany & Co. and Neiman Marcus continue to do well despite the economy, he said. And even as NASA experiences budget cuts, the extraordinary wealthy are willing to pay small fortunes to go into space or into the depths of the ocean, said the public policy professor.

"People who are selling to the super-rich basically can't lose," said Reich, former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration. "Richard Branson can dig a hole to the center of the Earth and charge a million dollars a day to go through it and he'd find people to take him up on the offer."