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<i>Trieste</i> shortly after her purchase by the US Navy in 1958
Trieste shortly after her purchase by the US Navy in 1958

Trieste is a Swiss-designed, Italian-built deep-diving research bathyscaphe, which with its crew of two reached a record maximum depth of about 10,911 metres (35,797 ft), in the deepest known part of the Earth's oceans, the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench near Guam in the Pacific. On 23 January 1960, Jacques Piccard (son of the boat's designer Auguste Piccard) and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh achieved the goal of Project Nekton.

Trieste was the first manned vessel to have reached the bottom of the Challenger Deep.[1]


Trieste consisted of a float chamber filled with gasoline (petrol) for buoyancy, with a separate pressure sphere to hold the crew.[2] This configuration (dubbed a "bathyscaphe" by the Piccards), allowed for a free dive, rather than the previous bathysphere designs in which a sphere was lowered to depth and raised again to the surface by a cable attached to a ship.

Trieste was designed by the Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard and originally built in Italy. His pressure sphere, composed of two sections, was built by the company Acciaierie Terni. The upper part was manufactured by the company Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico, in the Free Territory of Trieste (on the border between Italy and Yugoslavia, now in Italy); hence the name chosen for the bathyscaphe. The installation of the pressure sphere was done in the Cantiere navale di Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples. Trieste was launched on 26 August 1953 into the Mediterranean Sea near the Isle of Capri. The design was based on previous experience with the bathyscaphe FNRS-2. Trieste was operated by the French Navy. After several years of operation in the Mediterranean Sea, the Trieste was purchased by the United States Navy in 1958 for $250,000 (equivalent to $2.2 million today).

At the time of Project Nekton, Trieste was more than 15 m (50 ft) long. The majority of this was a series of floats filled with 85,000 litres (22,000 US gal) of gasoline, and water ballast tanks were included at either end of the vessel, as well as releasable iron ballast in two conical hoppers along the bottom, fore and aft of the crew sphere. The crew occupied the 2.16 m (7.09 ft) pressure sphere, attached to the underside of the float and accessed from the deck of the vessel by a vertical shaft that penetrated the float and continued down to the sphere hatch.

The pressure sphere provided just enough room for two people. It provided completely independent life support, with a closed-circuit rebreather system similar to that used in modern spacecraft and spacesuits: oxygen was provided from pressure cylinders, and carbon dioxide was scrubbed from breathing air by being passed through canisters of soda-lime. Power was provided by batteries.

Trieste was subsequently fitted with a new pressure sphere,[3] manufactured by the Krupp Steel Works of Essen, Germany, in three finely-machined sections (an equatorial ring and two caps).

To withstand the enormous pressure of 1.25 metric tons per cm2 (110 MPa) at the bottom of Challenger Deep, the sphere's walls were 12.7 centimetres (5.0 in) thick (it was overdesigned to withstand considerably more than the rated pressure). The sphere weighed 14.25 metric tons (31,400 pounds) in air and eight metric tons (18,000 pounds) in water (giving it an average specific gravity of 13/(13−8) = 2.6 times that of sea water). The float was necessary because of the sphere's density: it was not possible to design a sphere large enough to hold a person that could withstand the necessary pressures, yet also have metal walls thin enough for the sphere to be neutrally buoyant. Gasoline was chosen as the float fluid because it is less dense than water, and also less compressible, thus retaining its buoyant properties and negating the need for thick, heavy walls for the float chamber.

Observation of the sea outside the craft was conducted directly by eye, via a single, very tapered, cone-shaped block of acrylic glass (Plexiglas), the only transparent substance identified which would withstand the external pressure. Outside illumination for the craft was provided by quartz arc-light bulbs, which proved to be able to withstand the over 1,000 standard atmospheres (15,000 pounds per square inch) (100 MPa) of pressure without any modification.

Nine metric tons (20,000 pounds) of magnetic iron pellets were placed on the craft as ballast, both to speed the descent and allow ascent, since the extreme water pressures would not have permitted compressed air ballast-expulsion tanks to be used at great depths. This additional weight was held in place at the throats of two hopper-like ballast silos by electromagnets, so in case of an electrical failure the bathyscaphe would automatically rise to the surface.

Transported to the Naval Electronics Laboratory's facility in San Diego, California, Trieste was modified extensively by the Americans, and then used in a series of deep-submergence tests in the Pacific Ocean during the next few years, culminating in the dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep during January 1960.[2]

The Mariana Trench dives

Trieste departed San Diego on 5 October 1959 for Guam aboard the freighter Santa Maria to participate in Project Nekton, a series of very deep dives in the Mariana Trench.

On 23 January 1960, she reached the ocean floor in the Challenger Deep (the deepest southern part of the Mariana Trench), carrying Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh.[4] This was the first time a vessel, manned or unmanned, had reached the deepest known point of the Earth's oceans. The onboard systems indicated a depth of 11,521 metres (37,799 ft), although this was revised later to 10,916 metres (35,814 ft); fairly recently, more accurate measurements have found Challenger Deep to be between 10,911 metres (35,797 ft) and 10,994 metres (36,070 ft) deep.[5]

The descent to the ocean floor took 4 hours 47 minutes at a descent rate of 0.9 metres per second (3.2 km/h; 2.0 mph).[6][7] After passing 9,000 metres (30,000 ft), one of the outer Plexiglas window panes cracked, shaking the entire vessel.[8] The two men spent twenty minutes on the ocean floor. The temperature in the cabin was 7 °C (45 °F) at the time. While at maximum depth, Piccard and Walsh unexpectedly regained the ability to communicate with the support ship, USS Wandank (ATA-204), using a sonar/hydrophone voice communications system.[9] At a speed of almost 1.6 km/s (1 mi/s) – about five times the speed of sound in air – it took about seven seconds for a voice message to travel from the craft to the support ship and another seven seconds for answers to return.

While at the bottom, Piccard and Walsh reported observing a number of small sole and flounder (both flatfish).[10][11] The accuracy of this observation has later been questioned and recent authorities do not recognize it as valid. The theoretical maximum depth for fish is at about 8,000–8,500 m (26,200–27,900 ft), beyond which they would become hyperosmotic.[12][13][14] Invertebrates such as sea cucumbers, some of which potentially could be mistaken for flatfish, have been confirmed at depths of 10,000 m (33,000 ft) and more.[12][15] Walsh later said that their original observation could be mistaken as their knowledge of biology was limited.[13] Piccard and Walsh noted that the floor of the Challenger Deep consisted of "diatomaceous ooze". The ascent took 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Other deep dives by Trieste

Beginning in April 1963, Trieste was modified and used in the Atlantic Ocean to search for the missing nuclear submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593). Trieste was delivered to Boston Harbor by USS Point Defiance (LSD-31) under the command of Captain H. H. Haisten. In August 1963, Trieste found the wreck off the coast of New England, 2,600 m (8,400 ft) below the surface.[16] Trieste was changed, improved and redesigned so many times that almost no original parts remain. It was transported to the Washington Navy Yard where it was exhibited along with the Krupp pressure sphere in the National Museum of the U.S. Navy at the Washington Navy Yard in 1980. Its original Terni pressure sphere was incorporated into the Trieste II.

In art and literature

The song "The Trench" by Danish composer Ste van Holm is a tribute to the Mariana Trench dives.

Voyage Of The Trieste - an instrumental track on The Chocolate Watchband's 1968 LP The Inner Mystique.

The producers of the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation named one of the show's starships U.S.S. Trieste, after the bathyscaphe.[17]

Trieste appears in the 2008 novel Flood by Stephen Baxter.

Producer Jack Dangers released the limited edition album Bathyscaphe Trieste on the label Primary Numbers (PRIMA007) on September 17, 2013.[18]

See also

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