August 19, 2000: The Kursk, an ultra-modern Russian nuclear-powered submarine has sunk. Its crew has been trapped underwater for over a week now. In fact many might already be dead. By denying that it was a serious accident and by not launching serious rescue efforts in the beginning, the Russian government has reduced their chances of survival further…
The submarine’s ability to stay for long periods underwater, is an absolute marvel of science. Actually, this is due to its capsule-like body. Adequate oxygen and food supplies enable submarine crew to survive under the sea for long periods. It’s a self-contained little world far removed from the world you and I live in.
This very factor can also prove to be a submarine’s undoing. Imagine you’re travelling in a sub. Now imagine your reaction if, for some reason, it can’t rise to the surface of the sea again. How long can you hold out? While every sub has emergency stocks of food and oxygen supplies, these will only last for a few days. After that, what?
The crew of the Kursk has been facing this very situation for the last one week. While taking part in training exercises last week, the Kursk, sank to the seabed in the Barents Sea, near the Arctic Circle. It is not clear why the accident occurred. In any case, the Kursk was forced to shut down its engine. Since it is powered by a nuclear reactor, once the engine is shut off, it doesn’t have any means to rise to the surface.
The Kurskis a big submarine. As big as a football-stadium. It can carry up to 28 torpedoes or bombs to blow up ships, and anti-submarine missiles. Many military subs like the Kurskand aircraft carriers favour nuclear fuel for its tremendous efficiency.
But its ultra-modern look and technical superiority can’t do much to save the lives of its crew. A frantic rescue mission has been launched to save the crew, as oxygen supplies inside the submarine are fast running out. “It is clear that all internal emergency equipment and procedures aboard the Kursk have failed, and that the crew cannot escape unaided,” says a Russian military expert. “The sub’s hatches are sealed and cannot be opened from the inside. The temperature inside the sub must be dropping precipitously, it is completely dark, and food and water rations are very limited,” he adds.
The Kursk, was one of a fleet of 22 warships taking part in a military operation near the Russian naval base at Severomorsk. One version for the cause of the sub’s sinking could be due to massive damage resulted from a collision with a huge object, which has not been identified. Another version reports it to explosions ripping through the sub’s forward torpedo compartment. As a result the torpedo tubes and the front section of the sub were flooded. It is believed that its captain grounded the sub to prevent the situation going completely out of control.
What are the rescue efforts underway?
Fresh reports have suggested that the captain and 60 crew members are probably already dead. They were in the first two compartments, which were badly damaged. Underwater films showed massive damage to the nose and front sections. Moreover, the sub is tilted at an angle of 60 degrees on the seafloor, making rescue efforts difficult.
Four Russian capsule vehicles even attempted to dock with the damaged vehicle. But bad weather and strong underwater currents foiled the attempts.
The Russian government has come in for a lot of criticism for the way it has handled the crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin at first attempted to cover-up the tragedy and rejected all offers of foreign help. Precious days were wasted in the beginning as a result. But when the government realised that it couldn’t do much on its own, it turned to the US, Britain and Norway for advice and skilled assistance.
These countries have however, responded positively and sent help. A British mini-submarine and a team of Norwegian specialized Arctic divers are among those who have been sent. The British sub is due to reach the sunken submarine any moment now. However, if all else fails, huge pontoons inflated with air could be used to lift the sub to a depth of 30 m. Divers could then take over.
But is time running out? In the beginning the sailors could be heard banging on the hull, tapping SOS messages (international signal for ‘save our souls’) through a type of code called Morse code. It was their only source of contact with the world as after their first two days radio contact failed. But lately even this stopped and the complete silence have raised fears that they are already dead. It is possible though that the crew might be resting to conserve energy as oxygen is fast running out.
When was the first submarine invented?
Though the submarine is in effect, a twentieth-century invention, attempts to build one date several hundred years. In England for example, a crude submarine boat was built and powered by oars, three hundred years ago! But it only remained as an item of curiosity. The first undersea boat of importance was the Turtle, built by American David Bushnell.
This was during the American War of Independence of the eighteenth century between the Americans and the British. Fishnell sought to blow up a British boat with the aid of a torpedo. He nearly succeeded in doing so.
During the early years of the twentieth century the submarine made great progress. The sub designs of two men, Holland and Lake, were adapted by a number of countries like France. During the two World Wars – 1914 to 1945 – their potential as warships that could ride the oceans undetected and attack stealthily enemy ships when required, was exploited by several nations especially Germany.
But how does the submarine submerge and stay underwater for days?
This is due to the sub’s unique double-hulled construction. Special compartments between the outer and inner hulls, can be flooded with sea water, increasing the ship’s overall weight and reducing its buoyancy, or ability to float. Thrust forward by the propeller and steered forward by horizontal rudders, called hydroplanes, the ship sinks.
The submarine’s inner hull is designed to withstand enormous pressures that build as the sub goes down. Once submerged, the ship is kept steady by trim tanks along the keel. To surface, the sub empties its special compartments of water. Periscopes, radar, sonar, and satellite networks are the navigational tools used under water. Today of course the use of nuclear fuel has revolutionized the sub technology further. A sub running on nuclear fuel needs to refuel only once in two or three years.