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A submersible taking wealthy tourists to visit the site of the Titanic wreckage in deep waters off the coast of Canada was missing for a third day on Tuesday, as US and Canadian ships and planes swept a huge area trying to find the vessel.

One pilot and four passengers were on board the submersible that went missing on Sunday, the US Coast Guard said, adding the vessel could stay underwater for up to 96 hours, although it was unclear if it had resurfaced but was unable to communicate.

Those aboard the submersible called Titan, the highlight of a tourist expedition that costs $250,000 per person, included British billionaire Hamish Harding and Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood with his son Suleman.

British billionaire Hamish Harding
British billionaire Hamish Harding, who is said to be among the passengers onboard the submarine that went missing on trip to the Titanic wreckage is seen in this handout picture taken in flight, July 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

The 77-year-old French explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet and Stockton Rush, founder and CEO of the vessel’s US-based operating company OceanGate, were also reported to be on board.

US and Canadian ships and planes began swarming the area on Monday about 1,450km east of Cape Cod, some dropping sonar buoys that can monitor to a depth of 13,000 feet (3,962 metres), US Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger said.

“We are deploying all available assets to make sure that we can locate the craft and rescue the people on board,” he told reporters on Monday. “It is a remote area and it is a challenge to conduct a search in that remote area.” He said officials had asked commercial vessels to help.

The wreckage of the Titanic that sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg lies at about 12,500 feet (3,810 metres). The Titan submersible usually takes two hours to descend to the wreck.

RMS Titanic Expedition Mission 5
This image courtesy of Dirty Dozen Productions shows the 4am start of the RMS Titanic Expedition Mission 5 on the morning of June 18, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

OceanGate Expeditions, the private company that operates the submersible, said it was “mobilizing all options” to rescue those aboard the Titan.

The US Coast Guard said on Twitter that a boat on the surface - the Polar Prince - lost contact with the submersible about one hour and 45 minutes after it began diving to the site of the Titanic’s wreckage on Sunday.

Here’s what we know about the missing submersible.

When did the submersible vehicle go missing?

The submersible went on a dive Sunday morning and lost contact with the Canadian research vessel Polar Prince about 1,450km east of Cape Cod. OceanGate alerted the Coast Guard on Sunday afternoon after contact was lost about one hour and 45 minutes into the dive.

A US Coast Guard C-130 aircraft and a Canadian P-8 aircraft able to search with underwater sonar equipment were looking for the submersible. A US Air Force C-130 and three ships including the Polar Prince had joined the search Monday, according to flight and marine traffic trackers.

What is the Titan submersible?

The missing submersible, known as the Titan, is designed to take five people - one pilot and four crew members - to depths of about 13,100 feet, or nearly 4km.

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The vessel has 96 hours of life support for five people. It’s about the size of a minivan, CBS correspondent David Pogue said after joining an expedition last year, and is steered using a video game controller.

It operates with a launch-and-recovery platform and, in the current expedition, was paired with the Canadian research vessel Polar Prince on the surface. (A submersible is different from a submarine in that it is supported by a surface vessel, platform, shore team or submarine.)

Space is tight on the vessel, and equipment is minimal. So are the facilities: Though there is a small toilet separated by a privacy curtain, OceanGate has advised passengers to “restrict your diet before and during the dive to reduce the likelihood that you will need to use the facilities.”

Who is on the missing submersible?
The British billionaire and chairman of aviation company Action Aviation is among those missing, according to his stepson. Dubai-based Harding had posted on social media that he was proud to be heading to the Titanic as a “mission specialist”, adding: “Due to the worst winter in Newfoundland in 40 years, this mission is likely to be the first and only manned mission to the Titanic in 2023.”
Harding was also on board the 2019 “One More Orbit” flight mission that set a record for the fastest circumnavigation of earth by aircraft over both geographic poles.

Their family have confirmed they are on board. Shahzada is vice-chairman of one of Pakistan’s largest conglomerates, Engro Corporation, with investments in fertilisers, vehicle manufacturing, energy and digital technologies. According to the website of SETI, a California-based research institute of which he is a trustee, he lives in Britain with his wife and two children.

The 77-year-old French explorer, whom media say is one of the five on board, is director of underwater research at a company that owns the rights to the Titanic wreck. A former commander in the French Navy, he was both a deep diver and a mine sweeper. After retiring from the navy, he led the first recovery expedition to the Titanic in 1987 and is a leading authority on the wreck site.
In a 2020 interview with France Bleu radio, he spoke of the dangers of deep diving, saying: “I am not afraid to die, I think it will happen one day.”

The founder and CEO of the vessel’s US-based operating company OceanGate is also on the submersible, according to media reports. “It is an amazingly beautiful wreck,” Rush told Britain’s Sky news of the Titanic earlier this year. “Rush became the youngest jet transport rated pilot in the world when he obtained his DC-8 Type/Captain’s rating at the United Airlines Jet Training Institute in 1981 at the age of 19,” according to his biography on OceanGate’s website.

What is OceanGate Expeditions, the company operating the missing Titan sub?

OceanGate Expeditions, led by CEO Stockton Rush, is a private research and tourism company that has organised more than a dozen underwater expeditions since 2010, including to the SS Andrea Doria south of Nantucket. Rush is a co-founder and a board member of OceanGate Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to use emerging technology to further research in marine science, history and archaeology.

OceanGate also explored the Titanic wreck in 2021 and last year, documenting its rate of decay. The company has said it planned to return annually. Because of the large scale of the wreck and the debris field, missions aimed at collecting images, videos, and laser and sonar data over several years would be required, it said.

Rush told CBS News last year that OceanGate’s eight-day expeditions cost $250,000 for every person who dives down to see the wreckage. Rush said some of the Titanic enthusiasts - or “Titaniacs” - who travel on the submersible mortgage their homes, while others are so rich they don’t think twice about the cost. The company has had one client who had won the lottery.

How deep is the Titanic wreckage, and where is it located?

The wreckage is in a remote area about 600km south of Newfoundland, Canada, at a depth of 12,500 feet, or about 4km. More than 1,500 people are estimated to have been killed when the Titanic sunk in 1912.

Humans can’t survive without oxygen at that depth. Norris, the retired Coast Guard captain, said he doesn’t believe a rescue vessel could reach that far below the surface.

Location of the Titanic wreckage.
The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912 during its maiden voyage from England to New York with 2,224 passengers and crew on board. Image Credit: WP

The search will take place on the surface - in case the vessel was able to come up but lost communications - as well as underwater, with the use of sonar buoys and ship sonar, Mauger said.

As rescuers look for the submersible, they will have to comb through “a debris field two-plus miles below the surface” among other areas, according to Norris. “And then get rescue vessels or vehicles down to the scene, if there is even one that’s available or even one that exists.”

What could have happened to the submersible?

Without having studied the craft itself, Alistair Greig, professor of marine engineering at University College London, suggested two possible theories based on images of the vessel published by the press.

He said if it had an electrical or communications problem, it could have surfaced and remained floating, “waiting to be found.”

“Another scenario is the pressure hull was compromised - a leak,” he said in a statement. “Then the prognosis is not good.”

While the submersible may still be intact during its dive, “there are very few vessels” able to go to the depth to which the Titan might have travelled.

“The clock is ticking, and any submariner/submersible deep divers know how unforgiving the Abyssal domain is: going undersea is as, if not more, challenging than going into space from an engineering perspective,” said University of Adelaide associate professor Eric Fusil in a statement.

What is submersible tourism?

Since the 1980s, tourists have explored oceans by riding in submersibles. Companies and resorts near reefs, such as in Hawaii and the Caribbean, allow tourists to rent submersibles to experience the sights of scuba diving without swimming or getting wet.

Submersibles differ in size, fitting one person or as many as 60. For tourists, the vehicles often dive about 150 feet but can plunge deeper. Some submersibles are operated by a pilot, while others are programmed to travel a designed route.

OceanGate has held scientific and tourism expeditions in submersibles in Washington, California, the Gulf of Mexico, Massachusetts, Florida and Canada.

“All modern submersibles run on batteries,” said William Kohnen, president of Hydrospace Group, a California company that builds submersibles. “You charge your batteries, and the amount of batteries you put is directly related to how long you expect to be down there.”

What happened to the Titanic?

This handout image taken during the historical 1986 dive, courtesy of WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and released February 15, 2023 shows the Titanic bow. Image Credit: AFP

The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912 during its maiden voyage from England to New York with 2,224 passengers and crew on board. More than 1,500 people died.

The wreckage is in two main pieces 640km off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, some 13,000 feet underwater.

It was found in 1985 and remains a source of fascination and a lure for nautical experts and underwater tourists.

- With inputs from WP and Reuters