A deep-sea submersible that disappeared on an expedition to the wreck of the Titanic has about 40 hours of oxygen left, US Coast Guard officials said Tuesday afternoon.
The Titan, a five-person capacity vessel operated by OceanGate Expeditions, disappeared without a trace about 100 minutes after taking off from the icebreaker research vessel Polar Prince about 900 miles off the coast of Cape Cod Sunday morning.
An extensive search and rescue operation using Canadian Boeing P-8 Poseidon and C-130 Hercules reconnaissance aircraft and underwater sonar buoys found no trace of the ship, US Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick said in a news conference on Tuesday.
On board are British billionaire explorer Hamish Harding and French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet – known as Mr Titanic – as well as Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his 19-year-old son Sulaiman Dawood.
OceanGate Expeditions confirmed Tuesday that its CEO and founder Stockton Rush was the fifth person on board.
More than 48 hours after the ship disappeared, many disturbing questions remain.
Why did the submersible go offline?
Titan uses two systems to communicate with her surface ship. Text messages can be sent back and forth, and security pings are sent every 15 minutes to indicate the sub’s location and operability.
Both systems stopped working about an hour and 45 minutes after the Titan sank on Sunday morning.
After to his websiteOceanGate has developed a real-time hull health monitoring (RTM) safety feature that assesses the integrity of the Titan’s hull on every dive.
The technology is likely to be able to detect any weaknesses in Titan’s carbon fiber hull and relay the data to the crew of five and support vessel on the surface.
The hull combines two titanium domes that are purpose-built to withstand the extreme pressure of water weight at 4,000m below sea level.
OceanGate Expeditions revealed earlier this month that Elon Musk’s satellite company Starlink provided him with an internet connection.
What could have happened to the Titan?
The sudden loss of contact between Titan’s two communications systems was an ominous sign, according to veteran technology journalist David Pogue, who traveled aboard Titan to the famous wreck site in 2022.
“There are only two things that could mean. Either they lost all power or the ship suffered a hull rupture and immediately imploded. Both are devastatingly hopeless,” Mr Pogue said said CBC on Tuesday.
Alistair Greig, a professor of marine engineering at University College London, told the Associated Press that another possibility was a leak in Titan’s pressure hull.
If the ship reached the seabed and couldn’t return under its own power, “the options are very limited,” he said.
“While the submersible may still be intact, once it’s beyond the continental shelf there are very few vessels capable of going that deep, let alone divers.”
Another possibility is that Titan made contact with the wreckage of Titanic and became stuck or her onboard systems were disabled.
The time between entering the water and losing contact would be roughly equivalent to the time it would take to reach the wreck site.
Former ABC News science editor Michael Guillen, who became the first journalist to visit the Titanic wreck site in 2000, recounted his own near-death experience after the submersible he was on was caught in an underwater current.
TITANIC ACCIDENT. When I was at ABC News, I was the first television correspondent in history to cover the wreck of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, 2 1/2 miles below the surface. An accident happened that almost cost me my life. Here’s what happened. #Titanic… pic.twitter.com/b4t3WtaRdc
— dr Michael Guillen (@DrMGuillen) June 19, 2023
Mr Guillen said a strong sea current pushed the ship towards Titanic’s 21-tonne propellers and became trapped under the stern.
The crew of the submersible Mir 1 then tried desperately to reverse and apparently collided with the famous shipwreck.
After 30 minutes of back and forth movement, the crew finally managed to free the ship and return to the surface.
Mr Guillen later wrote in his 2021 memoir believing is seeing that he thought he was going to die.
The Canadian military has dropped sonar buoys in the water which would likely be able to detect distress signals from the crew of five had they not been incapacitated.
What contingency options would the ship have to float?
The Titan had seven onboard backup systems to bring her back to the surface. These included “drop weights” made of sandbags and lead pipes, which would fall down in an emergency and bring the ship to the surface by buoyancy.
The titan was also equipped with an inflatable balloon designed to bring it back to the surface. A device should work even if everyone on board falls unconscious.
“If there had been a power outage and/or communications failure, that would have happened and the submersible would then be floating around on the surface waiting to be found,” Professor Grieg told the AP.
The US Coast Guard has said it is searching a massive 10,000 square meter area, suggesting searchers believe the ship may have resurfaced somewhere in the North Atlantic.
However, extensive search efforts have so far failed to find any trace of the titan.
If the ship is found, can the passengers be saved?
David Concannon, a consultant with OceanGate Expeditions who was scheduled to take part in the final expedition, said officials are working to procure an unmanned vehicle capable of reaching the 4,000m depth.
The crushing pressure of the ocean at this extreme depth means that an unmanned vehicle like the US Navy’s Curv-21 would realistically be the only vessel capable of reaching the missing submersible.
According to CNN, French President Emmanuel Macron has also sent the research vessel Atlante to help with the search.
The ship is equipped with an underwater robot capable of reaching depths of 4,000 meters and is expected to reach the site on Wednesday evening.
In 1973, two British sailors were rescued from a depth of 1,600 feet (487 m) after being stranded in a six-foot steel ball.
According to the BBC, the survivors still had 12 minutes of oxygen when they were finally pulled from the sea.