Sir Richard Branson is at it again. The globetrotting billionaire has announced his latest exploration venture -- Virgin Volcanic, which plans to charter trips into active volcanoes, the first such travel of its kind.
On April 1, Virgin Volcanic will officially unveil VVS1, a state-of-the-art submersible that uses "carbon-carbon" materials originally developed for deep space travel, which will be capable of transporting three passengers into the molten lava core of active volcanos.
With his sights already set on space and underwater exploration, with Virgin Galactic and Virgin Oceanic, respectively, volcanic travel is a natural extension for the fiery Branson, who has dreamed of sub-mantle travel for years. “I have a long held fascination with volcanoes, having read Jules Verne’s 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' as a young boy," Branson told HuffPost Small Business via smoke signal. "I decided that one day I would go there too. Alongside our adventures with Virgin Galactic and Virgin Oceanic, volcanoes are the next great unexplored terrain. What can I say, I lava challenge!”
Branson will take part in the first Virgin Volcanic dive, set for 2015, along with Academy Award winner and "Joe Versus the Volcano" star Tom Hanks, Black Eyed Peas recording artist and science enthusiast will.i.am, actor/producer Seth Green and two-time Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who will produce a documentary about the mission using groundbreaking 3-D technology called VD. They represent the first group of so-called "Volcanauts," who have put down a $1 million deposit for the upcoming journey.
"A window seat for a journey to the liquid core of our home planet would be a bargain at twice the price," Hanks said.
Already, the company has ambitious plans to target the world's five most-active volcanoes within its first three years of operation, including:
- Etna -- Sicily, Italy
- Stromboli -- Aeolian Islands
- Yasur -- Republic of Vanuatu
- Ambrym -- Republic of Vanuatu
- Tinakula -- Solomon Islands
Notably absent from the list is Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull, which erupted in 2010 and caused Europe's worst breakdown in civil aviation since World War II -- and which Branson, a member of the HuffPost Small Business Board of Directors, previously has called "kind of wimpy."
The Virgin Volcanic missions could produce unprecedented research findings for these still-misunderstood and occasionally temperamental ruptures in the Earth's crust, according to volcanologist Frederick Smith, based in the Republic of Vanuatu, who is currently conducting preliminary tests on the Yasur volcano. “The project will derive important scientific results to help control and monitor active volcanoes," Smith said. "It is believed a new level of the Volcanic Explosivity Index could be found above and beyond the current high of Level 8 -- Supervolcanic."
Beyond the science, however, Branson also sees commercial application for the technology, similar to his long-term plans with Virgin Galactic. The hope is to develop a clean, safe and fast alternative to transcontinental commercial aviation -- essentially, traveling through the Earth instead of around it, because as we all know, the shortest path between two points is a straight line. In one hypothetical scenario, according to experts, one may eventually be able to travel from Hawaii to Naples, Italy, in just two hours via molten lava flows, with passengers boarding and disembarking from a network of "Earthports" close to the world's volcanoes. All Virgin Volcanic passengers will receive a copy of Branson's latest book, "Screw Business As Usual" and an exclusive magma-proof carrying case.
A spokesman from the Intervolcanic Exploration Agency did not immediately return calls for comment, except to note that "Joe Versus the Volcano" remains his favorite movie of all time.