Billionaire adventurer Richard Branson announced Tuesday that he plans to travel to one of the deepest parts of the ocean in a single-person submarine.
Branson said that over the next two years, the solo craft will go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic's Puerto Rico Trench and South Sandwich Trench, the Diamantina Trench in the Indian Ocean and the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean.
Branson's fellow explorer, Chris Welsh, plans to make the first descent later this year to the Mariana Trench, which at 36,000 feet is deeper than Mount Everest is high. Branson then plans to explore the 28,000-foot-deep Puerto Rico Trench.
The pilots for the other three trips have not been chosen.
"Man has not explored our ocean," the Virgin Atlantic founder said in an interview at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club.
"We have 800 pounds of moon rocks and not one drop from the bottom of the ocean," said Alex Tai, Virgin Group director of special projects.
A news release said there was only one frontier left for Branson's Virgin brand, which has reached "the seven continents of the earth, up into the jet stream and soon, even into space."
"If someone says something is impossible we like to prove it's possible," Branson said. "I love learning and I'm just very fortunate to participate in these kinds of adventures."
Branson unveiled the submarine, a nearly 18-foot long, white-and-blue airplane-like craft with stubby wings and a cockpit.
The carbon fiber and titanium craft will be capable of cruising for about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) and can stay down unaided for 24 hours. The sub and its accompanying catamaran cost $17 million.
Branson said his so-called Virgin Oceanic adventure will have a scientific purpose, as well, and he is working with various ocean research groups.
The dives also will be recorded and uploaded to Google Earth, said John Hanke, the Internet search engine's vice president of product management.
"Our mission for Google Earth is to create an interactive virtual globe and enable users to visit places that they've never explored, including the world's oceans," he said.
The submarine originally was commissioned by Branson's close friend and fellow adventurer Steve Fossett, who died in 2007 while flying a plane over the Sierra Nevada.
Fossett had intended to complete the first solo dive to the Mariana Trench, Branson said.
Branson also said that he plans to create a larger submarine that can hold more people and offer trips to tourists for a sizable fee.
Last year Branson unveiled a three-person submarine called the Necker Nymph, which is available for $2,500 a day for guests of his private resort in the Caribbean. The submarine, created by San Francisco-based Hawkes Ocean Technologies, is capable of going almost 100 feet deep. In a subsequent interview with Popular Mechanics, Hawkes officials said they were also working with Branson on submersibles capable of high-speed deep sea travel.
Branson has also been working on a space tourism venture with the construction of a $209 million spaceport in New Mexico. The British businessman has said he expects to launch the first suborbital flights from Spaceport America between mid-summer 2011 and spring 2012.
While most of the country is still dealing with the daily realities of a struggling economy, University of California, Berkeley professor Robert Reich said the super-rich are richer today than they have ever been.
"It's very hard to spend $20 million a year, even $10 million," said Reich, former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration. "The super-rich are always on the lookout for new thrills and new expensive thrills."
High-end retailers such as Tiffany & Co. and Neiman Marcus continue to do well despite the economy, he said. And even as NASA experiences budget cuts, the extraordinary wealthy are willing to pay small fortunes to go into space or into the depths of the ocean, said the public policy professor.
"People who are selling to the super-rich basically can't lose," he said. "Richard Branson can dig a hole to the center of the earth and charge a million dollars a day to go through it and he'd find people to take him up on the offer."