The 'Titanic' distraction to hide a top-secret military mission from the Soviets

Sunken nuclear submarines and covert operations against the Soviet Union eventually led to Titanic's discovery.

The 'Titanic' distraction to hide a top-secret military mission from the Soviets
  • Robert Ballard, naval officer and oceanographer, wanted to find the Titanic in the early '80s, which he eventually did before also uncovering a few more military secrets.
  • Under the auspices of a Titanic search mission, the Navy funded him under the condition that he also locate two nuclear submarines that had both sunk in the 1960s.
  • The USS Thresher and USS Scorpion were discovered, while Titanic's big waves in headlines hid the real intent of the mission from the Soviet Union.

For decades the most infamous shipwreck sat unattended to on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. That is until the 1985 discovery of the Titanic. With secret military planning and funding, the United States Navy's investigation of two wrecked nuclear submarines led to the eventual discovery of the Titanic wreck.

Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the wreck, now reveals more complete details on the mission. In 1982, Ballard met with the Navy to request funding for the development of a robotic submersible, which he'd use to find the Titanic. The Navy's deputy chief for submarine warfare, N. Ronald Thunman, was all on board for developing this type of technology. But on one condition — utilizing the tech to find the wrecked USS Thresher and USS Scorpion first.

The USS Thresher and USS Scorpion were located in the same mission before locating the Titanic. The Thresher had sunk around 200 plus miles off the Boston coast, killing 129 crewman at the time in 1963. In 1969, 99 crewman had died when the Scorpion disappeared near an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic.

The discovery of all of these wrecks was due to the new technology and following debris trails that would eventually lead to the boat and subs in question.

The top-secret mission discovers the Titanic and downed nuclear submarines

One of the most famous shipwrecks of all time, the "unsinkable" Titanic went down after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Swirling to the bottom of the deep Atlantic seafloor, it hit its eternal resting place in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912.

The ship sent radio distress signals and messages before it went down. The general location has been known for some time, but the Atlantic is more than two miles deep in this area. Diving and robotic technology was not available for many years. Aboard a French ship, Ballard launched his top-secret project, Argo, which was a robotic explorer with an advanced sonar and videocam system

Just a little after 6 a.m. on September 1st, the Argo had spotted the Titanic's debris some 230 miles south off the coast of Nova Scotia. Remnants of the legendary ship had finally been seen after more than 70 years hidden beneath the depths.

Before Ballard had the time to dedicate his search efforts to the Titanic, he was on the hunt for the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. The Navy had suspected that the Soviets had sunk the Scorpion. Higher-ups in the Pentagon also wanted to figure out if the nuclear reactors were leaking any radioactive material or if they were looted.

What happened to the nuclear submarines? 

The Thresher sank during a round of deep-diving trials. The Navy had assumed there wasn't any foul play suspected. But the Scorpion was a different matter entirely. They had reason to believe that the Scorpion was targeted by the Soviets and that the nuclear material might have been removed from the sunken sub. Although, when the Scorpion was finally found, further inspection showed there were no breaks in the hull, which would have suggested an attack. A follow-up covert mission the next year checked to see if any of the radioactive material had spread. There was no such findings.

Searching for the submarines did bear fruit for Ballard's eventual Titanic mission, who stated:

What I discovered when I was mapping the Scorpion was that when it imploded, the current carried away the lighter material… I gambled that the same thing happened to the Titanic, and I thought, 'Let's not look for the Titanic. Let's look for stuff that would have come off of it.'

The Cold War mission is told in even more detail in the latest National Geographic's newest Titanic display. It also includes stories about the men and women that survived the tragic catastrophe.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
She was walking down the forest path with a roll of white cloth in her hands. It was trailing behind her like a long veil.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…