Italy's Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes on Earth, is on Branson's short list for his new "project." The mountain erupts spectacularly on a regular basis, as seen here on Feb. 9, 2012.
Credit: Boris Behncke.
British tycoon and explorer of the universe Sir Richard Branson has announced what may be his boldest endeavor yet: a trip to the scalding heart of an active volcano. Too bad it was his April Fools' prank.
The billionaire created a new website for his latest supposed venture, which was dubbed Virgin Volcanic, yesterday (April 1). The site's announcement touted a specially designed vehicle built to withstand liquid, hot magma that would ferry Branson toward the center of Earth's five most active peaks.
Branson said he would have some star-studded company on his subterranean journey. Actors Tom Hanks, star of "Joe Versus the Volcano," and Seth Green, known for his performance as Dr. Evil's son in the "Austin Powers" franchise, and singer Will.i.am, of The Black Eyed Peas, have pledged to be among the first "volcanauts," as Branson called them in a tweet.
Actor Adrian Grenier, star of HBO's testosterone-fueled series "Entourage," was added to the list after reaching out to Branson in a tweet, promising, "I'll bring the marshmallows."
Virgin Volcanic offered bigger prizes than lava-singed s'mores. Branson's hoax project site suggested that the technology could hasten the dawn of a new age of world travel.
"Experts predict that one could travel from Hawaii to Naples in a couple of hours via the molten lava flows, with passengers boarding and disembarking from a network of "Earthports" close to the world's volcanoes," according to a statement on the Virgin Volcanic website.
Could you do it?
Some, apparently, took Branson's prank at face value. "Is it really doable?" someone tweeted this morning (April 2).
"With today's technology, the answer is no," said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Ohio's Denison University, and author of Wired's Eruptions blog. Scalding temperatures in excess of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius) and crushing pressures inside the Earth would make survival unlikely, Klemetti told OurAmazingPlanet by email. [How to Journey to the Center of the Earth]
Even if a manned vehicle managed to withstand the extreme conditions, he said, viscous, dense magma would make it difficult to move around down there.
"You'd be fried to a crisp in a flash — and likely stuck down there as well," he said. "It is really nothing like being in a submersible, like James Cameron in the Mariana Trench."
Even if someone could build a volcano-proof vehicle, a Jules Verne-type journey would still be impossible. If you followed a conduit of magma down into an active volcano and toward the center of the Earth, "you'd just keep going down until you reached the crust-mantle boundary," Klemetti said.
The mantle, as rigid as steel, would stop you before you got anywhere near the Earth's liquid core.
However, a scientist can dream.
"To see exactly what is going on inside an active volcano first-hand would give us so much information that is inaccessible today," Klemetti said.
Virgin's other ventures
Branson has several movie-worthy exploits in the works — also aimed at pushing the frontiers of human exploration — which are very real.
Virgin Galactic, Branson's space exploration project, is testing its futuristic SpaceShipTwo, a vessel that can ferry passengers and scientists to the edge of space, with plans to begin commercial flights on the winged vehicle as soon as late 2013.
Branson's ocean exploration program, Virgin Oceanic, has been working on deep-diving vehicles that, according to recent announcements from the group, would take humans to the five deepest spots on Earth — first and foremost, the Mariana Trench, in the western Pacific Ocean.
Filmmaker James Cameron beat the British billionaire to the punch. The director of Titanic and Avatar recently piloted his own craft to the Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean trench, some 6.7 miles (11 kilometers) below the surface of the sea.
Branson was well aware of the effort, and lauded the dive. In fact, members of his Virgin Oceanic team were on board the vessel that launched Cameron's newfangled machine.
Reach Andrea Mustain at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.