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Titanic quest turns to new territory

Researchers have returned to the site of the Titanic shipwreck, after a break that was forced by Hurricane Danielle. Now they're turning their attention from the well-known hulk's bow to its stern, to take a look at areas of the debris field that haven't been studied since the Titanic was rediscovered in 1986.

The research vessel Jean Charcot began its high-definition, 3-D survey of the underwater site last month, with the aim of documenting the historic wreck in unprecedented detail before it disintegrates. NBC News' Kerry Sanders was in on the adventure when the first pictures were beamed up from robot vehicles operating two and a half miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. (In comparison, the remotely operated vehicles involved in the response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill were a mere mile down.)

Unfortunately, Hurricane Danielle's storm track came a little too close for comfort, and the Jean Charcot had to head back to port in Newfoundland at the end of August. This week, the team sailed back to resume their survey.

Expedition Titanic's two autonomous underwater vehicles (nicknamed Ginger and Mary Ann, after the "Gilligan's Island" women) and its camera-laden remotely operated vehicle have been back in the water already, although the seas were too choppy for remote operations today. Among the shots that have shown up on the expedition's Facebook page are eerie pictures of the officers' cabins and the first-class promenade deck.

In a video clip, research specialist Bill Lange (who was involved in the 1986 rediscovery expedition) discusses the shift in operations from the ship's bow to its stern. The plan laid out by Lange calls for spiraling out from the stern section and checking a list of high-interest targets. "We hit this one, we're covering new ground, because no one's looked at this since '86," Lange said.

It's been 98 years since the Titanic ran into an iceberg and sank, causing more than 1,500 deaths. The ship is slowly disintegrating into scrap, and yet it retains a powerful grip on the popular imagination — in part because the wreck was lost for so long, and in part because the sinking of an unsinkable ocean liner serves as "the world's largest symbol of man's mortality and vulnerability," as The Onion put it in a famous parody.

The difficulties that Expedition Titanic has had to weather so far simply reinforce the metaphor's message: Never assume you can beat Mother Nature.

I've been in touch with a couple of folks on the expedition and will keep you posted as it proceeds. But communication is spotty. "We are dealing with a very low bandwidth satellite dish out here," team member Bob Sitrick told me via e-mail. You can also check these resources for updates:

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