While it may not be able to reach the same seven-mile mark as James Cameron's deep-sea vessel, the Jiaolong manned submersible could provide far greater returns.
The Jiaolong submersible is an 8.2-metre long, 22-ton, scientific research vessel, the result of years of stealth development by the Chinese government. Tang Jialing, Fu Wentao and Ye Cong comprise the submersible's three-man crew. Ye both helped design the vessel and has been its pilot on 28 of the previous 37 dives.
Initially devised as part of the 863 Plan, a high-tech R&D initiative enacted in 2002, the Jiaolong made its first test-run in 2010, diving to 3,000 metres. A subsequent test in 2011 saw the sub dive past 5,000 metres, making it one of only five submersibles in the world capable of exceeding 3,500 metres — the others belonging to the US, France, Russia and Japan.
If a test-run scheduled for June is successful, and the sub does reach its operational limit of 7,000 metres, the Jialong will the only sub of the five capable of diving beyond 6,500 metres. At 7km below the surface, the Jiaolong will have access to 99.8 per cent of the seafloor — assuming it can withstand the crushing pressure.
With that sort of range, the Jiaolong will play an essential role in deep-sea exploration, both scientific and commercial. The company that helped design and build the submersible, the China Ocean Mineral Resources R&D Association (COMRA) has contracts with the International Seabed Authority to photgraph and survey 75,000km swaths of the seabed in return for rights to "explore minerals and other resources for commercial purposes in this area once the technology matures," said Jin Jiancai, COMRA's secretary-general.
And as the price of precious metals and rare earth element commodities steadily rise, the ability to explore virtually the entire undersea landscape, which covers 70 per cent of the Earth, and mine subsequent discoveries are sure to provide a sizable bounty for any country able to reach them. "The range between 6,000 and 7,000 metres below sea level is rich in resources," Yan Kai, the team's chief engineer said. "Therefore, we need to have our submersibles explore and conduct research in this range." [Jiaolong Wiki, BBC News, WSJ, Old Salt Blog, Asian Scientist, Subsea World News]