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China Breaks Deep-Sea Diving Record

This image of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth, was made using sound waves counched off the sea floor
This image of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth, was made using sound waves bounched off the sea floor. Darker blues represent deeper spots. (Image credit: NASA/UNH Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center)

A Chinese manned submersible today (June 22) set a deep-diving record when the three-person sub descended 22,844 feet (6,963 meters) into the Pacific Ocean.

Today's dive, the deepest in a series of record-breaking dives in recent days, has placed the Jiaolong submersible at the top of a short list of state-owned vehicles capable of taking humans to the deepest reaches of the ocean.

Only China now possesses a vessel capable of descending deeper than 21,325 feet (6,500 meters).  

The Jiaolong, named for a mythical sea dragon, began today's 10-hour dive at 7 a.m. local time, in a spot above a portion of the Mariana Trench. It spent three hours on the seafloor, according to Chinese media reports, and brought back geological and biological samples.

Only two other manned vehicles have gone deeper in the ocean, first in 1960 and then again this year.

Five decades ago, two men aboard the Trieste, a giant metal craft, reached the Challenger Deep, the deepest place on Earth. Just weeks ago, in late March, filmmaker James Cameron returned to the Challenger Deep in a craft he helped design. The solo dive took the Hollywood insider to a depth of 35,756 feet (10,890 meters), or nearly 7 miles beneath the surface of the sea. The round trip took two hours and 36 minutes.

Today's dive is the third the Jiaolong has completed in the Mariana Trench. A ship brought the submersible to the region on June 11, with the aim of conducting six dives, each deeper than the last, culminating with dives to 22,965 feet (7,000 meters) — the limit of the vessel's reach.

The mantle for deepest-diving manned vehicle has now passed to China from Japan, whose Shinkai 6500 held the previous record for a modern-day state-owned craft — as its name denotes, the submersible can reach 21,325 feet (6,500 meters). The United States is refurbishing Alvin, its deepest-diving craft, to be able to reach 21,325 feet, although it's not clear when the upgrade will be completed.

The Jiaolong's crew will attempt to dive to 22,965 feet (7,000 meters) tomorrow (June 23), according to Chinese media. 

Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook & Google+

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.