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Arctic explorers tell how they put Petersburg's flag on ocean's bottom

August 04, 17:44 UTC+3 ST. PETERSBURG

The Rossiya icebreaker hosted the headquarters of the high-latitude Arctic deep-water expedition led by Artur Chilingarov

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Mir-1 submersible seen during the Arktika 2007 expedition

Mir-1 submersible seen during the Arktika 2007 expedition

© Sergei Khvorostov/TASS

ST. PETERSBURG, August 4. /TASS/. The crew of the Arktika (Arctic) 2007 expedition, which made the first ever under-ice submersion to the ocean's bottom at the North Pole's geographic point, celebrates the tenth anniversary of the outstanding event. The expedition members told TASS about the mission and its importance for the science.

Arktika-2007 is an expedition, during which, among other, on board Mir-1 and Mir-2 submersibles, the crew reached the bottom of the Arctic Ocean at the geographic point of the North Pole and practiced the technology of under-ice diving. On that day, a researcher of Arctic and Antarctic Artur Chilingarov together with seven other researchers installed the flag of Russia on to the ocean's bottom. The expedition researched the Arctic's environment, geological structure of the Arctic shelf. The vessels evacuated the Ledovaya Baza (Ice Base) and delivered the drifting Severnyi Polus-35 (North Pole) station.

"2007 was an anomalous year - never before the ice layer in the Arctic has been disrupted that much," the expedition's head Vladimir Sokolov said. "As at that moment, at the high latitudes were qualified scientists, who could realize the situation, it was easier for us to understand the warming processes, which continue in the Arctic now."

"On August 2, 2007, on the eve of the diving, I brought to (Artur) Chilingarov right to his cabin a flag of his and mine native town St. Petersburg and suggested breaching the earlier agreed protocol - to put right on the North Pole's bottom the flag of our native town," he said.

On that day, the world learned Chilingarov had put onto the depth of 4,302m a titanium flag of Russia, but even the expedition members knew nothing about St. Petersburg's flag in a capsule. "I knew nothing about the flat of St. Petersburg in a capsule on the bottom," the expedition's head said.

The project's components

The idea of diving under the ice on the North Pole came from Anatoly Sagalevich of the Oceanology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "He dropped this idea to me, and we jointly planned the expedition," Chilingarov said.

The team based on the Akademik Fyodorov scientific vessel and on the Rossiya nuclear icebreaker. On the first vessel were the expedition's headquarters led by Vladimir Sokolov; in Baltiysk (Kaliningrad region) the submersibles Mir-1 and Mir-2 were loaded into the vessel's holds, and in Murmansk the vessel received onboard two Mil Mi-8 helicopters with crews and Chief Pilot Vadim Bazykin.

The Rossiya icebreaker hosted the headquarters of the high-latitude Arctic deep-water expedition led by Artur Chilingarov. They could not use the other vessel as it could not work in the ice. Chilingarov said, "the idea worked, as we managed to put together a team, where everyone believed in the success."

First ever diving

Pilots Anatoly Sagalevich and Evgeny Chernyayev made the technical diving of Mir-1 and Mir-2 north-east off Franz-Josef Land, the submersibles dove one after another.

"There were emotions, problems, but anyway we did it," the expedition's head told TASS. "The biggest problem was that we could not use the usual system of placing the beacons, which apparatuses use for finding ways in the water, as the ice reflected signals. Usually, beacons on hawsers are placed in the water, we had to install the beacons from the ice, so that the apparatuses could used them in ascending: we have invented new technology."

"If those diving attempts near Franz-Josef Land failed, the expedition would have returned. They were the first ever diving of manned deep-water apparatuses in the ice," the expedition's head said, adding from that very moment Russia gained a technology of using submersibles in the ice.

Towards the Pole

The vessels moved easily towards the North Pole. "The ice destruction was exceptional, and thus the icebreaker moved on without any problems. The Akademik Fyodorov followed it along the laid canal very smoothly," the expedition's head said. Near the North Pole, from Akademik Fyodorov pilot Vadim Bazykin took off a helicopter carrying Vladimir Sokolov and Sergei Frolov to explore the ice: they wanted to find a suitable place with melted ice, and the icebreaker took the vessel there. The icebreaker went aside to allow maximum space for the apparatuses, and the team began preparations for the diving.

"It is easier to say what Moscow officials did not call Chilingarov on the eve of the diving - they all trying to persuade him to refuse from the plan," deputy head of the Russian Polar Explorers Vladimir Strugatsky said. "Artur was awake all night through, and by the morning he told me: 'For the first time in my life I have written a will'."

"Nobody seemed to sleep that night, and they we see the Arctic's master walks to the vessels - a huge bear," he continued. "As if it came to wish us good luck."

Window leaf in the ice

"The problem was, the vessel was to stay at one place for a long time, but at those latitudes, vessels are drifting together with the ice," Chilingarov explained. "The Mirs - the Russian submersibles designed by Igor Mikhaltsev - can stand the pressure of 600atm, work at the depth of six kilometers with a crew of three - a pilot and two observers," Strugatsky said. "At the pole, they had to descend through a tiny 'window leaf' of clear water, which was ready to shut down any moment."

"At first we brought down the service vessel - a boat with divers, which had to unhook and hook the deep-water apparatuses to the 50-tonne crane of the Akademik Fyodorov," Sokolov said. "The first Mir with Artur Chilingarov, Pilot Anatoly Sagalevich and observer Vladimir Gruzdev was raised from the hold and the crane took it accurately beyond the board. Everything was drifting, the system was alive, near, along the board, blocks of ice were moving in the mist which came occasionally from the ocean."

"At 9:28 Moscow time, Mir-1 <…> began going down into the dark-blue water," Strugatsky said.

Sokolov continued saying "the hours, the submersibles remained in the water, were extremely worrisome for the team, which served the diving and kept communication." "They were very nervous, I spoke to them all the time and saw the tension on faces," Sokolov said.

During the diving at the North Pole, at the depth of 3,000 meters communication with Mirs disrupted.

"The hydronauts, of course, knew well that in that layer of the Arctic Ocean radio beacons fall silent and instead of radio transmitter sounds only a mosquito squeak could be heard," Strugatsky said. "Three hours after the descend, Chilingarov communicated the Akademic Fyodorov: "Mir-1 is on soil, depth is 4,302 meters, we are on a yellow soil." And all of a sudden, added: "We have stirred the silt to a storm which would not settle for long"."

Petersburg's flag

The diving near the pole and reaching the bottom within the first minutes arouse a storm not only in the depth - "it immediately became the flash news of the day," Strugatsky said.

"As the mission was planned, there was no mentioning a flag," head of the Arktika-2007 expedition said. "And already during the preparation, a technician who served the apparatus <…> said suddenly: "Look, we have titanium, let's put Russia's flag on the North Pole"."

"Then, I came to Chilingarov's cabin on the eve of the diving and suggested breaching the earlier protocol - to put on the bottom of the North Pole the flag of our native town. I did not doubt, the man, who was a small boy in Leningrad's blockade suffering all the tortures of war and he was on the verge of death in a shelling, <…> was bound to support this idea of mine and would not reveal it. <…> No doubt, it (the flag) still remains there at the depth of four kilometers," Strugatsky said with a smile.

The Russia flag was made of titanium and, Strugatsky said, was outside Mir-1, inside the manipulator. It was installed in the point of the North Pole, then the apparatuses moves slightly backwards to take a picture. The scientist showed to the TASS correspondent a souvenir - a small cup, which also travelled to the depth of four kilometers, during that diving, - its size reduced in the pressure. At that time, the manipulators took soil samples for further tests.

Those almost nine hours, the apparatuses remained in the water, seemed eternity for those who remained up there, on board the vessels. But the truly dangerous situation developed during the ascending.

"Just imagine: we all are hanging across the board, and down there through the melted ice, in the water we can see the red-yellow 19-tonne giant, but instead of going up to the surface, it rushes either under the Fyodorov's keel, or, which is horrible, to its forage, to the propellers," Strugatsky said. "There were no major damages to Mir-1, only minor cosmetic scratches, to the antenna, to the spotlight," Sokolov said.

Diving done, what next?

"This diving, this action is a geographic event, not political, it is similar to putting a flag on the Everest or on the Moon," Chilingarov said. "The expedition was a geographic revelation."

The technology solutions, practiced ten years ago, are important for work with deep-water objects, in construction of platforms on ice, in technology assistance and rescue missions, Vladimir Sokolov said. "The technology was made," he said.

Mir-1's pilot Anatoly Sagalevich said he was preparing new projects for the submersibles. His conviction is "development of the Arctic zone would require practical use of diving under the ice - the technology, which the Mirs invented ten years ago." And meanwhile, Artur Chilingarov is planning another polar expedition, devoted to the 40th anniversary of the Arctic icebreaker's trip to the North Pole, when in August 1997, a well-known polar captain and a good friend of Chilingarov, Yuri Kuriyev, for the first time every brought a vessel to the planet's top.

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