Beijing’s desire to make technological leaps could come from a slew of exploration activity in two opposite directions.

While Chinese astronauts (taikonauts) and spaceships have been doing frequent low Earth orbits since the 2000s, submersibles from the Asian giant are also descending to new depths in trenches near the South China Sea.

The People’s Daily has reported that China’s most advanced manned submersible, Jiaolong (“flood dragon” in Mandarin), is undergoing a retrofit at the National Deep Sea Center in the eastern coastal city of Qingdao for its next dive in the deepest part of the South China Sea, a central basin with an average depth of five kilometers. ‘Jiaolong’ can dive up to seven kilometers deep.

Sitting together with ‘Jiaolong’ at its homeport is a state-of-the-art simulator of the same size and look, that can mimic the sub’s operations and do troubleshooting during an emergency.

The ‘Jiaolong’s as-yet-unnamed mother-ship will also carry unmanned deep-sea research submersibles ‘Qianlong’ and ‘Hailong’ that can gather quality data.

The launch of ‘Jiaolong’ is a landmark in China’s deep-sea exploration as scientists can reach the seafloor for a closer look and complete refined sampling missions.

China is also developing a manned submersible that can dive to 11km deep with its sea trial scheduled in 2021, to “scour the bottom of the 11,034-meter-deep Mariana Trench”.

In April last year, ‘Jiaolong’ finished three dives in the South China Sea. It normally carries three people, including a pilot and two scientists. A dive usually starts around 7am and takes 10 hours. The three people inside can only move in a round space that has a diameter of 1.4 meters, said Gao Xiang, a senior engineer at the center.

According to China’s oceanic authority, the next step for the country’s deep-sea technology is developing and testing a drilling facility named ‘Shenlong’, plus a mining platform named ‘Kunlong’, an information-sharing system called ‘Yunlong’ and a comprehensive platform known as ‘Longgong’. This equipment is expected to be finalized in 2020 and put into the South China Sea sometime after that.