Titan submersible: What happens next?

23 Jun 2023

Titan submersible. Image: OceanGate

While the rescue operation for those on board has ended in tragedy, there is still work to be done in terms of finding out what happened to the vessel.

Yesterday (22 June), Rear Admiral John Mauger of the US Coast Guard sadly confirmed that the five men aboard the Titan submersible had died.

Mauger, who is leading the search for Titan, said the debris that was found was “consistent with a catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber”.

The victims were Hamish Harding, 58, Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his son Suleman Dawood, 19, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, and Stockton Rush, 61.

While this marks a tragic end to the rescue operation, there is still work to be done in terms of investigating what happened in what Mauger deemed “an incredibly unforgiving environment”.

Recovering the debris

Mauger said that it was particularly complex because the incident took place in a remote part of the ocean involving people of many different nationalities.

However, by the time the debris was discovered, highly advanced sea crafts had already gathered in the sea or were on the way ready to assist in the search. This includes several remote operated vehicles (ROVs), including the French deep sea robot Victor 6000 from L’Atalante, an ROV from Canadian vessel Horizon Arctic, and Juliet, a vehicle from Guernsey-based deepwater investigators Magellan.

Juliet spent around 200 hours last year conducting 3D surveys of the Titanic wreck but was hit with delays on the way to the Titan rescue mission. Victor 6000 has lighting and imaging capability that can be monitored on board L’Atalante.

It was the Horizon Arctic’s ROV that found the tail cone of the Titan on the sea floor about 1,600ft away from the bow of the Titanic and other debris nearby.

Mauger said the governments of countries involved in the incident have been meeting to discuss what an investigation could look like.

The US Coast Guard is likely to continue to play an important role, having led the search up to this point. It said it would continue to investigate the site of the debris field.

Safety concerns around the Titan

According to Eric Fusil, associate professor in the School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Adelaide, most, if not all, submersibles and submarines operating at depth have a pressure vessel made of a single metallic material with high yield strength, typically steel or titanium.

Writing in The Conversation, he said the Titan, however, was different. “Its pressure vessel was made of a combination of titanium and composite carbon fibre. This is somewhat unusual from a structural engineering perspective since, in a deep diving context, titanium and carbon fibre are materials with vastly different properties.”

Concerns around the safety of the Titan vessel and its carbon fibre hull have come to light in recent days, with reports that OceanGate, the company operating the Titan, had been warned about safety concerns years before the catastrophic implosion.

US court documents show that David Lochridge, the company’s director of marine operations, had raised concerns in an inspection report.

The report “identified numerous issues that posed serious safety concerns” and Lochridge had “stressed the potential danger to passengers” as the submersible reached extreme depths. According to the court documents, his warnings were ignored and he was subsequently fired.

Guillermo Söhnlein, a co-founder of OceanGate, has rejected some of the criticisms over safety and certification.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “People keep equating certification with safety and are ignoring the 14 years of development of the Titan sub.”

He added that any expert who weighs in will admit that they were not there for the design, building and “rigorous test programme” of the sub.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic