The Mariana Trench is a place of incredible mystery, the deepest point in our home planet. Like 97% of Earth's seabed, it remains completely unknown and full of the strangest life you can possibly imagine. Never-seen aliens swim and roam its lunar landscape.
It was only touched once in January 23, 1960, by two men: Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh. For a few minutes, they stayed down there, still, inside their bathyscaphe Trieste, before initiating its trip back to the surface.
That will change forever very soon.
In fact, if Sir Richard Branson, Chris Welsh and Graham Hawkes—the inventor of the Super Falcon flying submarine—have their way with their new project, one day you may go there too, to soar just above the bottom of the ocean, trying to escape the tentacles of giant luminous krakens or avoiding secret alien bases (come on, there has to be giant luminous krakens and secret alien bases down there).
The name of Branson's new venture is called Virgin Oceanic. And this first "flight" into the Mariana Trench will be very much like Virgin Galactic SpaceShipOne's first flight into space. After that, the first of Virgin Oceanic's flying submarines—and hopefully not last—will take its pilots to the deepest points in all the five oceans of our Pale Blue Dot.
The flying sub was designed by Graham Hawkes. Unlike Trieste, the bathyscaphe that took Piccard and Walsh to the bottom of the Mariana Trench 10,911 metres (35,797 foot) below the surface of the ocean, Virgin Oceanic's submarine will fly for ten kilometers along the trench's bottoms. While Trieste descended much like a balloon, on a straight line, Hawkes' sub will glide its way down there, and keep exploring the bottom for quite a long time. It will be the first time that humans will have such experience.
And like Virgin Galactic SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo's White Knights, the flying submarine will also have a mothership, a huge catamaran just named Catamaran. The 125-foot long ship is so tall that it almost matches the Statue of Liberty—its mast goes up to 126 feet vs the Lady of the Harbor's 151 feet.
Catamaran was, in fact, Steven Fossett's ship Cheyenne, a high performance double-hull vessel that was designed to break speed records. Fossett, the adventurer and pilot who died in an airplane accident in September 2008, had imagined taking a submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Actually, it was Steve who, through this plan and working with Graham Fawkes, set in motion the new Virgin Oceanic. He worked with Hawkes on the the submarine itself. It was called the Deep Flight Challenger and—as you can see by looking at the prototype—it was the origin of the submarine that is now going to be used by Welsh and Branson in their record-breaking five-ocean flying adventure.
Hopefully, it will also be the basis for new, larger submarines capable of taking passengers to the depths of the oceans, just like SpaceShipOne became the kernel for the first civilian spaceflight commercial operation this side of catapulting rich people inside Russian Soyuz rockets. [Virgin Oceanic]