Earth & Conservation

China Is Planning a Huge 'Oceanic Space Station'

It would be the deepest manned base on the planet, located in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

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Photo: An recent aerial photo of a manmade Chinese island in the South China Sea, where China plans to build an underwater base as well. Credit: U.S. Navy, via YouTube China is building a massive underwater equivalent of a space station in the South China Sea, which could be used to hunt for minerals and further its military efforts to dominate the disputed area.

Bloomberg News reported this week that it had viewed a presentation by China's Science Ministry on the ambitious project, which entails building a manned facility at a depth of nearly 10,000 feet. Manned submersible craft have ventured even further down in the ocean, but not for more than few hours.

By comparison, the deepest extended-stay manned base is Florida International University's Aquarius laboratory, which sits in 60 feet of water off Key Largo, Fl. Working for extended periods underwater, even at that lesser depth, requires elaborate life support and safety procedures. Divers who return from the base, where the pressure is 2.5 times that on the surface, must undergo a 15-hours decompression process.

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The Chinese base would be at a depth where the pressure is about 300 times what it is on the surface. No details about the cost or design of the underwater base are available yet.

Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed the need for the laboratory at a science conference last month. "The deep sea contains treasures that remain undiscovered and undeveloped, and in order to obtain these treasures we have to control key technologies in getting into the deep sea, discovering the deep sea, and developing the deep sea," he said.

The South China Sea may have deposits equivalent to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

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But such a base might also help China to assert its control of the South China Sea, an area that contains some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. China currently is involved in a dispute with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Asian countries over its claim of territorial rights to 80 percent of those waters. To further their claims, the Chinese have built up reefs to create several artificial islands, including one that contains an airfield.

Defense publication Jane's has reported that the Chinese also are considering building the "Underwater Great Wall Project," a deep-sea sensing network that would help to detect U.S. and Russian submarines.

In 2012, filmmaker and adventurer James Cameron set a depth record by descending 35,737 feet in a submersible that he helped to design. The Chinese record is 22,600 feet, set by a three-man submarine that same year.

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