What caused the ‘catastrophic implosion’ of the Titanic submersible? What’s the difference with an explosion?
As parts of the Titan submersible are recovered and the investigation evolves, more will be known about what actually transpired in the depths of the Atlantic.
The Titan submersible had been on a voyage to the depths of the North Atlantic Ocean when it lost communication with the surface. It was enroute to visit the wreckage of the Titanic which rests 12,500 feet below the surface. After days of searching for the missing vessel, the US Coast Guard announced that a debris field had been discovered in the vicinity of the Titanic. Everything now points to the Titan having suffered a “catastrophic implosion,” the reasons for which will not be known until the pieces can be recovered for investigators to analyze. This recovery process is well underway.
Experts had earlier doubted that such a fate had befallen the deepwater exploratory vessel as no loud underwater sound wave had been registered to indicate such an event. But it has come to light that Navy sonars had in fact detected the event, but it was deemed inconclusive at the time to call off the rescue mission.
What is an implosion and why does it happen?
When pressure builds up inside of a contained space, it pushes outward as an explosion. Think of blowing up a balloon too much, and at a certain point when the material cannot take the stress anymore, it pops.
The opposite is true for containers that have more pressure than they can withstand pushing inward, then an implosion occurs. A fun experiment that science teachers often perform for their students to display this effect is heating an empty soda can. Then putting it into a freezing liquid, with the opening facing into the freezing liquid. The can falls in upon itself as if it were crushed.
At the depths that the Titanic is located the crushing pressure is 375 times that on the surface. It is the equivalent of 5,500 pounds of force per square inch of the objects surface. It’s been described as being like having the Eiffel Tower resting on top of the submersible.
What could have made the Titan implode?
Concerns had been raised about the design of the Titan in 2018 regarding the pressures that it could withstand. The vessel was designed with NASA and the University of Washington according to its creator Stockton Rush, built with carbon fiber and titanium. Experts say that it should be able to withstand the pressures at the depths it was supposed to go to on this expedition, rated by the company to be able to reach depths of roughly 13,000 feet, or 4,000 meters.
However, the vessel was never certified by a qualified third-party organization through a traditional assessment. In 2018, David Lochridge, the director of marine operations at OceanGate Expeditions, wrote a scolding report about the Titan submersible saying that it required more testing.
After he left the company that year, it came out in court proceedings in a legal battle between him and his former employer that the viewport for the Titan was only certified up to 1,300 meters. That is less than a third of what would be needed to reach the Titanic.
However, Arron Newman, four-time passenger on the Titan and shareholder in OceanGate, which built and operates the Titan submersible, told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi that vessel had been a prototype. This was the third expedition to the site of the Titanic wreckage, with one previously in 2021 and another in 2022.
In 2019, submersible expert Karl Stanley, sent an email to the Titan’s creator Stockton Rush after hearing cracking noises during a dive aboard the vessel. During his 12,000 foot descent, with Rush piloting, the sounds got louder the further down they went.
A series of investigations have been opened into the “catastrophic implosion” by numerous authorities to figure out what happened to the Titan. Currently, recovery teams are collecting the pieces that have been mapped out. Criminal inquiries have not been ruled out but it will be some time until all the details are known.