Time running out for crew of missing Titanic tourist submarine

It has enough air to last until Thursday, but if it isn't already on the surface rescue operations could be impossible

Time and oxygen are both running out for the crew of an ill-fated expedition to the two-mile deep wreck of the Titanic, which lost contact with its parent vessel less than two hours after beginning its descent on Sunday.

The submersible vessel, known as the "Titan," is designed to descend as deep as 4,000 meters (13,120 feet); the Titanic rests approximately 3,800 meters below the surface of the Atlantic, 400 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

With descent to the wreck expected to typically take around two and a half hours, it's not entirely clear where the sub was when contact was lost, where it could be now or whether there's anyone left alive to rescue.

It's believed there are five people onboard: British billionaire Hamish Harding, Pakistani British businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, French explorer and Titanic veteran Paul-Henry Nargeolet, and Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, the company that built the Titan and operates commercial expeditions to the Titanic.

As of Monday night, the US Coast Guard said it was working to search the surface of the ocean for the Titan in the hopes the craft managed to make it back up; sonar buoys are also being deployed by Canadian aircraft, and the vessel that launched the Titan, the Polar Prince, is assisting as well.

The USCG said it had searched an area of 10,000 square miles as of this morning.

USCG Rear Admiral John Mauger said underwater search is limited to using sonar to detect noise from the Titan and its crew, but that additional assets are being deployed to conduct further subsurface searching.

According to OceanGate, the Titan has between 70 and 96 hours of oxygen onboard, giving enough air for its crew until Thursday at the latest.

Titan rescue a titanic task

The Titan is a 22-foot submersible made from titanium and wound carbon fiber able to seat five people, though we use that term loosely as there are no seats onboard, as revealed by CBS news correspondent David Pogue when he visited Rush and company last year.

"I was a little nervous, especially given the paperwork," Pogue said in his story. According to Pogue, the waiver he had to sign stated: "This experimental vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, emotional trauma, or death."

Pogue's trip to the Titanic was cut short just 37 feet below the surface after a mechanical issue forced cancellation of the launch.

The Titan has just a single button onboard, with everything else handled via touchscreens and the craft piloted with a Bluetooth video game controller, Rush told Pogue. The reporter noted a "jerry-riggedness" to the Titan, like using construction pipes as ballast, or the fact that the Titan's crew is literally bolted into the craft with no way to escape, which Rush said wasn't the case.

"The pressure vessel is not MacGyver at all, because that's where we worked with Boeing and NASA and the University of Washington. Everything else can fail, your thrusters can go, your lights can go. You're still going to be safe," Rush told Pogue.

Then there's the fact that OceanGate relies on Starlink for the internet that serves its missions, a fact the SpaceX subsidiary acknowledged on Twitter earlier this month. Could this be a second chance for Elon to show off his aquatic rescue bonafides?

We asked both OceanGate and SpaceX whether Starlink was utilized on Titan in any way, but haven't heard back. Based on available information, Starlink doesn't appear responsible for the Titan's connectivity – just the internet being supplied to the Polar Prince.

On OceanGate's website (a cached version was grabbed as it is currently returning 503 and 507 error codes), OceanGate said that Titan communicates with the surface using nothing but ultra-short baseline (USBL) acoustics, i.e. it transmits its location via sonar, and can include short text messages as well.

So OceanGate knows where the sub was, but with USBL communication with Titan interrupted, it has no idea where it could have gone after that moment, which was nearly two days ago.

There's a lot of ocean out there

It's Tuesday, and half of the Titan's oxygen is likely already spent. That gives rescuers precious little time to search a lot of ocean, both above and below.

But what may have happened to the Titan? Speculation has been rampant, from a power failure, to the hull buckling, to the craft being trapped on the wreckage of the Titanic itself.

A power failure would be the best-case scenario, Pogue said in an interview yesterday. He noted that the Titan has seven different methods for returning to the surface, giving it multiple redundancies in case of emergency. Optimistically, Pogue hoped that Titan was somewhere bobbing on the surface of the ocean without any way to communicate.

If it isn't to be found there, implosion and being stuck are the remaining possibilities. Both cases would mean recovery, or rescue, is impossible.

"There's only three operating subs in the world that can go to [the Titanic's] depth," Pogue said. If Titan is somewhere down there, sitting on the abyssal plain two miles below the ocean's surface, "there's absolutely nothing [rescuers] can do about it."

The US Coast Guard is planning a press conference at 13:00 eastern time (17:00 UTC) to provide updates on the search effort. ®

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