Saturday 18 November 2017

Now it's Titanic in 3D

The SS Titanic leaves Belfast on a trial voyage shortly before she sank in April 1912. Photo: Getty Images
The SS Titanic leaves Belfast on a trial voyage shortly before she sank in April 1912. Photo: Getty Images
David Usborne

David Usborne

A deep-sea expedition will explore the world's most famous wreck site – so you can do the same

Prepare to navigate the ghostly decks, paddle by the broken portholes and dive the darkened staterooms of the Titanic, no experience or special equipment required, though a laptop would surely help.

The "virtual raising" of the liner that remains a symbol of engineering hubris and the frailty of human life – whichever class you travel in – nearly 100 years after it sank in the northern Atlantic is among the main goals of the latest international research mission to the Titanic wreckage site that leaves St John's, Newfoundland, this weekend. Also on the mission's to-do list: determine how quickly the remains of the once mighty liner are deteriorating in pressure that is 400 times what we know on the Earth's surface.

Most tantalising, however, may be the plans to construct an electronic replica of the wreckage that lies two-and-a-half miles under the sea, strewn over a two-by-three mile debris field. Over the full 20 days of the expedition, due to set sail on Sunday, the latest imaging equipment, digital cameras and sonar technologies, will send data to computers aboard the research ship above.

While the main purpose of the mapping effort is archaeological, it will also allow scientists to lift the veil from the world's most famous ocean cemetery and give all of us the chance to explore its every corner – including its iconic bow, separated at the time of its sinking from its stern – albeit by clicking a mouse. The plan is eventually to post the 3D model on the internet.

"The optical imaging platform is going to give us detailed three- dimensional data which has not been done before," James Delgado, president of the Texas-based Institute of Nautical Archaeology and a co-leader of the mission told The Independent. "This will be the first time that someone has looked at, mapped, plotted and brought back to the surface the sense of the entire Titanic site."

The site, first discovered by oceanographer Robert Ballard in 1985, has been visited multiple times. It is the grave not just of the ship but also the 1,522 souls who perished when an iceberg punctured the ship's hull in the early hours of 15 April 1912. Previous missions have focused either on retrieving thousands of artefacts, from chinaware to articles of the doomed passengers' attire, or on the simple filming of its ruptured hull, most notably by Hollywood director James Cameron. Seen by some as plundering for commercial gain, those expeditions – the last was in 2004 – have not always sat well with the scientific community.

The private company bankrolling this visit to the wreck, Atlanta-based RMS Titanic, has exclusive salvage rights to the ship.

This time it has striven to devise a trip that involves and comes with the approval of the main centres of oceanographic exploration. While one of their tasks will be to identify all the remaining artefacts, including thousands that are now hidden by sediment, nothing will be physically disturbed or brought to the surface, they say.

"We've enlisted an extraordinary team of experts," says Chris Davino, the president of RMS Titanic. Represented on the research ship as it leaves St John's for the 36-hour steam to the location of the site will be organisations such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both government agencies, and Mr Delgado's archaeological institute.

While Mr Delgado is among a select few who have seen the wreck first hand, he notes that this time everyone will be staying on board the research ship, the 250-foot RV Jean Charcot. All the deep-sea labour will be done by unmanned submersibles, some tethered and some operating autonomously, including a so-called REMUS, (remote environmental measuring units), a torpedo-shaped vehicle designed at Woods Hole to make repeated loops over an area of sea floor to collect data.

"For the first time, we're really going to treat it as an archaeological site with two things in mind," David Gallo, a Woods Hole scientist and a lead member of the new team observed. "One is to preserve the legacy of the ship by enhancing the story of the Titanic itself. The second part is to really understand what the state of the ship is."

Equipment on board the vehicles will include the latest acoustic imaging technology and 3D high definition cameras that will be synchronised with a powerful strobe light. "The data you can capture is incredible," says Mr Delgado. He adds that a "vast amount" of the site – as much as 40 per cent – remains unexplored.

Finally there lurks the question of how quickly the remains of the ship are decaying. This is of urgent concern to Mr Gallo, from Woods Hole, for whom the expedition is first an opportunity to assess the condition of the wreck today and complete a full inventory of all the artefacts that remain in and around it. They hope to detect those beneath sediment by directing powerful sound beams on the ocean floor. The rate of decay will be determined in part by comparing the new photographs of the site with those taken in that first visit to the wreck 25 years ago.

"We see places where it looks like the upper decks are getting thin, the walls are thin, the ceilings may be collapsing a bit," he said. "We hear all these anecdotal things about the ship rusting away, it's collapsing on itself. No one really knows."

No one pretends there will be anything definitive about the expedition. Instead, the material gathered will help determine what comes next both in terms of further retrievals of objects and archaeological study. "I'm sure there will be future expeditions because this is the just the beginning of a whole new era of expeditions to the Titanic – serious, archaeological mapping expeditions," said Mr Gallo.


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