Hope of new clues to sinking as Titanic debris field mapped

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Researchers have pieced together what is believed to be the first comprehensive map of the entire three-by-five-mile Titanic debris field and hope it will provide new clues about what exactly happened when the superliner hit an iceberg, plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic and became a legend.

Marks on the muddy ocean bottom suggest, for instance, that the stern rotated like a helicopter blade as the ship sank, rather than plunging straight down.

An expedition team used sonar imaging and more than 100,000 photos taken from underwater robots to create the map, which shows where hundreds of objects and pieces of the presumed-unsinkable vessel landed after striking an iceberg, killing more than 1,500 people.

Explorers of the Titanic – which sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City – have known for more than 25 years where the bow and stern landed. But previous maps of the floor around the wreckage were incomplete, said Parks Stephenson, a Titanic historian who consulted on the 2010 expedition.

Studying the site with old maps was like trying to navigate a dark room with a weak flashlight.

“With the sonar map, it’s like suddenly the entire room lit up and you can go from room to room with a magnifying glass and document it,” he said. “Nothing like this has ever been done for the Titanic site.”

The mapping took place in the summer of 2010 during an expedition to the Titanic including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and the Waitt Institute of La Jolla, California.

They were joined by other groups, as well as the cable History Channel. Details on the new findings at the bottom of the ocean are not being revealed yet, but the network will air a two-hour documentary on April 15, exactly 100 years after the Titanic sank.

The expedition team ran two independently self-controlled robots known as autonomous underwater vehicles along the ocean bottom day and night. The torpedo-shaped AUVs surveyed the site with side-scan sonar, moving at a little more than three miles per hour as they traversed back and forth in a grid along the bottom, said Paul-Henry Nargeolet, the expedition’s co-leader.

The AUVs also took high-resolution photos – 130,000 of them in all – of a smaller two-by-three-mile area where most of the debris was concentrated and these were stitched together on a computer to provide a detailed photo mosaic.