MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) -- Two Russian deep-sea submersibles made a test dive in polar waters on Sunday ahead of a mission to be the first to reach the seabed under the North Pole, Itar-Tass news agency said.
The Russian atomic icebreaker Rossiya in August 1987
Tass said it took an hour for Mir-1 and Mir-2, each carrying one pilot, to reach the seabed at a depth of 1,311 meters (4,301 feet), 47 nautical miles (87 km) north of Russia's northernmost archipelago, Franz Josef Land in the Barents Sea.
Tass said Mir-1 resurfaced at around 1030 GMT after five hours underwater while Mir-2 spent some more time on the seabed collecting samples.
"It was the first time a submersible worked under the icecap and it proved they can do this," Tass quoted Anatoly Sagalevich, the pilot of Mir-1, as saying after he left the sub.
As the Arctic icecap thins as a result of global warming, a race is looming to claim ownership of the rich energy resources under the North Pole.
The Russian mission involves a nuclear-powered icebreaker smashing through the ice to clear a path to the Pole for the command ship Akademik Fedorov. This will launch the submersibles to scoop samples from the seabed for research.
The mission will also plant a flag on the seabed under the Pole to symbolically claim the territory for Russia.
Soviet and U.S. nuclear submarines have often traveled under the polar icecap, but no one has so far reached the seabed under the Pole, where depths exceed 4,000 meters (13,100 feet).
"These test dives were not planned, but we decided to make them to double-check everything," Tass quoted the head of the mission, Artur Chelingarov, as saying on board the Akademik Fedorov.
Vesti-24 television, which showed images of a submersible diving into a thick mix of ice and water, said retrieving the vessels, capable of working at depths down to 6,000 meters (20,000 feet), had proved trickier than reaching the seabed.
"I heard some of those on the Akademik Fedorov praying during the operation," its correspondent said.
Tass said that after the test dive the expedition had headed towards the North Pole, several hundred miles further north.
"There is a hard and risky job to be done in the next few days to reach the seabed of the toughest ocean in the world, at a point no one has been able to reach so far," Chelingarov told Tass.
International law states that the five countries with territory inside the Arctic Circle -- Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark through its control of Greenland -- can claim only a 200-mile (320-km) zone around their coastlines for economic activity.
But since 2001, Russia has claimed a larger slice extending as far as the Pole, arguing that the Arctic seabed and Siberia are on the same continental shelf. E-mail to a friend
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