It may be the most famous ship in the world. But these extraordinary images show the Titanic as it has never been seen before. The pictures, produced using sonar and taken by underwater robots, provide new clues about what exactly happened when the doomed White Star Liner sank in the North Atlantic 100 years ago.
For the first time researchers have pieced together what is believed to be a comprehensive map of the entire three-by-five-mile Titanic debris field.
Marks on the muddy ocean floor suggest, for instance, that the stern rotated like a helicopter blade as the ship sank, rather than plunging straight down.
“With the sonar map, it's like suddenly the entire room lit up and you can go from room to room with a magnifying glass and document it,” said Parks Stephenson, a Titanic historian who consulted on the 2010 expedition.
“Studying the site with old maps was like trying to navigate a dark room with a weak flashlight.
“Nothing like this has ever been done for the Titanic site.”
An expedition team produced more than 10,000 sonar images to create the map, which shows where hundreds of objects and pieces of the presumed-unsinkable vessel landed after striking an iceberg. More than 1,500 people died in the disaster.
Explorers of the Titanic — which sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912 — have known for more than 25 years where the bow and stern landed after the vessel struck the iceberg.
The mapping took place in the summer of 2010 during an expedition led by RMS Titanic, the legal custodian of the wreck.
It was joined by other groups, as well as cable TV’s History Channel.
Details on the new findings are not being revealed yet, but the network will air them in a two-hour documentary on April 15, exactly 100 years after the Titanic sank.
The expedition team ran two independently self-controlled robots along the ocean bottom day and night. The torpedo-shaped AUVs surveyed the site with sonar, moving at a little more than three miles per hour as they traversed back and forth in a grid along the bottom.
“When you look at the sonar map, you can see exactly what happened,” said Paul-Henry Nargeolet, the expedition's co-leader with RMS Titanic.
By examining the debris, investigators can now answer questions like how the ship broke apart, how it went down and whether there was a fatal flaw in the design, he said.
The layout of the site and where the pieces landed provide new clues on what happened. Computer simulations will re-enact the sinking in reverse, bringing the wreck debris back to the surface and reassembled.
“It's groundbreaking, jaw-dropping stuff,” he added.
- Underwater robots took high-resolution photos — 130,000 of them in total — of an area two miles by three miles where most of the debris was concentrated
- The photos were stitched together on a computer to provide a detailed photo mosaic of the debris
- The result is a map that looks like the Moon's surface showing debris scattered across the ocean floor well beyond the large bow and stern sections that rest about half-a-mile apart