Into the Abyss: How James Cameron's Historic Mission Compares to the First Mariana Trench Dive

By Norman Chan

James Cameron made history by being only the third person to dive down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Here's the technology that got him there.

On Sunday night, filmmaker James Cameron made history by becoming only the third person to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench--the deepest known part of Earth's oceans--and was the only person to do it solo. But the blockbuster director didn't embark on this mission just for kicks. Aboard the coffin-like cavity of his fluorescent green high-tech submarine--the DeepSea Challenger (the floor of the Mariana Trench is known as the Challenger Deep)--Cameron spent hours recording video and collecting samples for scientists on the surface to pour over and study. The results will be published in a future issue of National Geographic magazine; the organization co-sponsored the expedition.

It wasn't just money that Cameron needed (and he has a lot of it) to embark on this mission--he utilized the latest in modern technology as well. Considering that the first (and only, before yesterday) time a manned mission to the Mariana Trench was accomplished was in 1960, Cameron had quite a leg up on the equipment available to explorers Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard. I'll let you guess who was the one that brought 3D video cameras down to the bottom of the ocean. Here's how Cameron's DeepSea Challenger compares to the Bathyscaphe Trieste that took Walsh and Piccard down to Challenger Deep over half a century ago.

Photo Credit: Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

The DeepSea Challenger

  • 24 ft long "vertical torpedo" that is positioned upright and rotates on its veritcal axis.
  • Built in secrecy over eight years by Acheron Projects in Australia.
  • Steel hull with walls more than 6cm thick, able to withstand pressures as high as 16,000 pounds per square inch, or 1099 times the pressure on land.
  • Reached the Challenger Deep floor at 35,838 ft, in 2 hours 36 minutes.
  • Sinks with the aid of 1000 pounds of steel plates, magnetically attached to the bottom.
  • Time spent at Challenger Deep: 6 hours.
  • Resurfacing took about 70 minutes, under the anticipated 90 minutes.
  • Lights up the ocean floor with an 8-foot tall tower of LED lights on the vessel's side.
  • Science equipment: sediment sampler, folding robot arm with claw, suction gun, environmental gauges, radio beacons and direction finders.
  • Video equipment: multiple high-def 3D cameras.
  • Maximum crew of 1.
Photo Credit: US Naval Historical Center

The Trieste

  • 59 ft long Bathyscaphe, filled with 22,000 gallons of gasoline as its float fluid for buoyancy.
  • Built in the 1950s and used by the French Navy before the US Navy bought it for deep sea missions.
  • 12.7cm thick hull.
  • Used 9 tons of iron shot weights to help it descend down the Mariana Trench, at a rate of 3 feet per second.
  • Reached the Challenger Deep at 35,814 ft, in 4 hours and 48 minutes, with a brief scare when a plexiglass window cracked during descent.
  • Return trip took 3 hours and 17 minutes.
  • Pressure sphere at the bottom for the explorers was only 6.5 feet in diameter.
  • Time spent at Challenger Deep: 20 minutes.
  • Maximum crew of 2.