BEIJING—China plans an ultradeep dive by a manned submersible beneath the Pacific that would propel it past the U.S. in a race to explore potentially vast mineral resources in the deepest parts of the world’s oceans.
The Jiaolong—named after a mythical sea-dragon—left China on board an oceanographic research ship on July 1. It arrived on Saturday at its destination in the northeastern Pacific, between Hawaii and North America, where it is to attempt a dive to 5,000 meters, or about 16,400 feet, according to state media reports.
The state-run Xinhua news agency on Saturday quoted Liu Feng, the director of the diving trials, as saying the sea was too rough to attempt the first of its planned four dives before Wednesday. “We’ll use this time to do our preparatory work down to the last detail, and as soon as sea conditions improve, we’ll start sea trials,” he was quoted as saying.
Xinhua quoted Liu Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration, on Saturday that a “marvel” of Chinese manned submergence would occur in the next 15 days. The administration, which is overseeing the mission, didn’t respond to a request to comment.
The planned dive would be the latest milestone for China in a high-stakes technological race once dominated by the U.S., which in 1960 sent two men to the bottom of the Mariana Trench—at 11,033 meters the deepest point in the world’s oceans—in the now-retired Trieste bathyscaphe.
The U.S. led undersea exploration and mining efforts for several decades thereafter, but commercial interest waned in the 1980s and 1990s because international prices for nickel, copper and other commodities thought to be most easily mined from the deep seabed at the time were insufficiently high.
The U.S. Navy used to operate three manned submersibles, including one, called the Sea Cliff, that was capable of going down to 6,000 meters, but didn’t replace it after its retirement because of defense cutbacks in 1998.
Now, many experts say the U.S. risks falling behind potential commercial and military competitors as rising commodity prices make undersea mining more profitable, and China and Russia apply for rights to explore newly discovered deep-sea deposits thought to hold larger quantities of silver, gold, copper, zinc and lead in particular.
The race has commercial, scientific and military implications comparable to space exploration, in which China is also now a world power as one of only four countries—alongside the U.S., Russia and India—capable of manned space flight.
Although Chinese officials say the Jiaolong is for civilian purposes only, foreign military experts say such a craft could be used to intercept or sever undersea communications cables, to retrieve foreign weaponry on the ocean floor, or to repair or rescue naval submarines.
Its primary purpose, however, is to help explore potentially huge but hitherto inaccessible undersea reserves of the metals and other natural resources that China needs to keep its economy growing, said Chinese and foreign experts.
China developed the Jiaolong as part of an ambitious deep-sea ocean-exploration program that was launched in 2002, and also includes plans to start building a deep-sea exploration center in the eastern city of Qingdao, where the Jiaolong will be based.
“This definitely was no ‘rush to headlines’ but rather a carefully evolved program,” said Don Walsh, an undersea-engineering consultant and former U.S. naval officer who was on the Trieste in 1960 and has met the team that designed the Jiaolong.
“I believe we will see more manned and unmanned submersibles from this team,” he said in an email. “And they will be welcome additions to the world ‘fleet’ of undersea vehicles. Collectively we need as many ‘eyes’ in the deep oceans as possible since there is so much we do not know about the ‘mysterious deep,’ ” he said.
He also said the Jiaolong’s designers had purchased a lot of “off the shelf” technology from overseas, and had benefited from training dives on the U.S.Navy’s Alvin manned submersible, which is operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The institution didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Jiaolong passed its first major benchmark last year when it dived to 3,759 meters beneath the South China Sea—site of territorial disputes among China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines— and planted a Chinese flag on the ocean bed.
That dive put China in an exclusive club of only five countries—along with Japan, Russia, the U.S. and France—that can explore the ocean below 3,500 meters.
If the Jiaolong’s current mission is successful, it will attempt to dive next year to 7,000 meters, the maximum depth it is designed to withstand, said officials involved in the project. That would put it ahead of Japan’s Shinkai submersible, which can dive to 6,500 meters, and Russia’s Mir, which can go down to 6,000 meters and was used to plant a Russian flag on the ocean floor beneath the Arctic in 2007.
It would also allow China to access an estimated 99.8% of the all the world’s seabed, said Chinese officials and experts.
The most capable U.S. deep-sea manned submersible still in service is the Alvin, which was launched in 1964 and can dive to a maximum of 4,500 meters. An upgraded version, designed to go down to 6,500 meters, isn’t due to be completed until 2015.
A submersible differs from a submarine in that it typically relies on a mother ship, has little use on the surface, but can achieve great depths and is highly maneuverable underwater. The Jiaolong is 27 feet long and has a round titanium hull to protect its maximum three passengers from the enormous pressure of the deep sea.
“It looks like a great white shark, with a white, round-shaped body, an orange head, and an X-shaped stabilizer at the rear,” Xinhua quoted Xu Qinan, the Jiaolong’s chief designer, as saying. It will need two hours to reach the seabed, where it will take video and photographic images, as well as topographical measurements and samples from the ocean floor, he said.
The Pacific test site was selected because the state-run China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association, also known as Comra, signed a contract in 2001 with the International Seabed Authority, a United Nations body that oversees mining in international waters.
The 15-year contract initially allowed Comra to explore 150,000 square kilometers of seabed for polymetallic nodules—small rocks containing metal ore—although the area was reduced to 75,000 square kilometers after eight years.
ISA, which is based in Jamaica, is meeting to discuss, among other things, unprecedented applications from China and Russia to explore a more recently discovered mineral source, called polymetallic sulphides.
They are found around volcanic springs on the seabed and are thought to contain larger quantities of metals, especially gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper.
Oceans cover about 70% of the Earth’s surface and average about 4,000 meters deep.
The ISA estimates that polymetallic-sulphide deposits can range up to 110 million tons each, but only about 5% of 60,000 kilometers of oceanic ridges, where most deposits are thought to lie, have been surveyed in any detail.
According to ISA’s website, Comra applied in May 2010 for the rights to explore polymetallic-sulphide deposits in the Southwest Indian Ridge, which roughly bisects the sea between Africa and Antarctica.
Nii Allotey Odunton, ISA’s secretary-general, has described the applications from China and Russia as “groundbreaking in nature.”
ISA is also considering, for the first time, two applications for deep-sea exploration rights from private companies, sponsored by the South Pacific islands of Tonga and Nauru, in what Mr. Odunton called a “a new milestone in the life of the authority and for the regime for deep seabed mining.”
The U.S. isn’t a member of ISA as it hasn’t ratified the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Among those who have urged Washington to ratify the Convention are Thad W. Allen, a senior fellow at Rand Corp. and former commandant of the Coast Guard, Richard L. Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, and John J. Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy secretary of defense.
They made a public appeal in April, arguing that the move would “provide American companies with a fair and stable legal framework to invest in mining projects in the deep seabed,” as well as benefiting the military by codifying navigation and overflight rights.
– by Jeremy Page, Dow Jones & Company