Branson unveils plan to plumb ocean depths

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British billionaire Richard Branson unveiled plans Tuesday to pilot a mini-submarine down to the furthest depths of the oceans, in his latest record-breaking adventure.

The single-seater Virgin Oceanic craft will try to reach the deepest points in each of the world's five oceans -- in what would be the first such feat -- starting with the deepest of them all, in the western Pacific later this year.

"With space long ago reached by man, and commercial spaceflight tantalizingly close, the last great challenge for humans is to reach and explore the depths of our planet's oceans," said Branson.

"There are enormous amounts of the oceans that have not been explored. More men have been to the moon than have been down further than 20,000 feet," he told AFP, announcing the project at Newport Harbor, south of Los Angeles.

Branson will share piloting duties with US sailor and explorer Chris Welsh, the chief pilot of the snub-nosed submersible, in the five dives planned over the a two-year period.

If plans go well, the first will be taken by chief pilot Welsh into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific, which goes down to 36,201 feet (11,033 meters), later in 2011.

Branson, back-up pilot on the first trip, is then scheduled to pilot the red, white and blue submersible to the Atlantic's Puerto Rico trench, some 28,232 feet (8,605 meters), which has never been explored before.

The 60-year-old British entrepreneur, who hopes the submarine project will break 30 Guinness World records, is well known for his past adventures, including trying to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon.

After starting in the music industry, Branson launched an airline and has since branched into a huge range of businesses, some groundbreaking: his Virgin Galactic project is on track to offer commercial space travel by early 2012.

The Oceanic project was originally conceived by Steve Fossett, Branson's former adventurer partner, who died in a mysterious plane crash in California in 2007.

"It will be very much in his honor and memory that we'll make the dives," Branson said.

© 2011 AFP

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