Billionaire Richard Branson plots deep-sea adventure with solo submarine

For the first time, Richard Branson is setting his sights low. The billionaire businessman, adventurer and space explorer announced Tuesday his plan to dive solo to some of the Earth's deepest points.

Branson and a fellow adventurer, Orange County businessman Chris Welsh, unveiled their 18-foot deep-sea submarine and its ambitious itinerary at Newport Harbor Yacht Club, where Welsh is a member.

Within the next few months, Welsh plans to pilot the first solo submersible to the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, 36,200 feet under the sea. After that, either Welsh or Branson will pilot the sub to four trenches in the world's other oceans.

"We'll discover a whole new world," Branson said.

He laid out his multiple motivations for the endeavor: to "educate the world about secrets hidden in its depths," to make scientific discoveries and catalog new species, and to break open the ocean to deep-sea tourism.

"Great businesses can come from great challenges," Branson said. "We believe there are thousands of people who would like to experience oceans, and become aquanauts."

Branson said this venture is like Virgin Galactic, his commercial space travel brand. About 250 of his potential astronaut customers have also said they'd like to explore the oceans, the British tycoon said.

For Virgin Oceanic's maiden voyages, Welsh assembled a team of scientists, engineers and filmmakers.

Katrina Edwards, director of the USC Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, has been collaborating on the project. Her research focuses on "extreme life" in the seabed beneath these trenches. She wants to find out how far into the Earth's crust microorganisms can live.

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