Science

How the Phoenix Rescue Capsule Works

  • Rescue workers help as a colleague leaves a capsule after performing a dry run test for the eventual rescue of the 33 miners trapped at the San Jose mine, near Copiapo, Chile, Monday, Oct. 11, 2010.

    Rescue workers help as a colleague leaves a capsule after performing a dry run test for the eventual rescue of the 33 miners trapped at the San Jose mine, near Copiapo, Chile, Monday, Oct. 11, 2010.  (AP Photo/Government of Chile, Hugo Infante)

Using a custom-built rescue capsule, designed through a joint collaboration by NASA engineers and the Chilean navy, rescue workers will ferry 33 miners to the surface -- 68 days after the men were trapped in a dark, humid, copper-gold mine.

Here's a look at exactly what the rescue capsule is and how it will work.

On Monday, the Phoenix I capsule -- the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers -- made its first test runs. Named after the mythic bird that rose from its ashes, the Phoenix capsule is designed to ferry the men one at a time up a narrow shaft lined with steel pipe. Chilean mining minister Laurence Golborne said the capsule weighs 924 pounds  (420 kilograms) and its interior height is 6 feet, 4 inches (1.9 meters).

The empty capsule is lowered via a winch 2,000 feet (610 meters) into the mine, just 40 feet (12 meters) short of the shaft bottom that has been the miners' refuge since the August 5 collapse. The men will each take an individual, twisting 20-minute ride back to the surface. It should take about an hour for the rescue capsule to make a round trip, Chilean deputy mining minister Rene Aguilar told The Associated Press.

"We didn't send it (all the way) down because we could risk that someone will jump in," a grinning Golborne told reporters.

The hi-tech capsule, painted in the red, white and blue colors of the Chilean flag, will be equipped with an oxygen supply, communications equipment, retractable wheels to help it travel up and down the rescue shaft and an escape hatch in case anything goes wrong. The exterior wheels will help it slide down the borehole as it is lowered by a massive crane mounted on a nearby hillside.

The rescuers finished reinforcing the escape shaft early Monday and the 13-foot (4-meter) tall rescue chamber descended flawlessly nearly all the way to the trapped men in a series of test runs.

Golborne told reporters that "the capsule handles well inside the duct and adapts well both inside the metal tubes and the rock."

Interactive Description of The Rescue Effort

According to rescue workers, the miners will be in constant communication with rescuers while in the capsule, and will wear special glasses to shield their sensitive eyes -- now more than two months without natural daylight-- from the sun.

After being extracted, the miners will be ushered through inflatable tunnels, like the ones used in sports stadiums, to ambulances that will take them to a triage station. Once cleared by doctors, they will be taken to another area where they'll be reunited with the chosen family members. Next stop: a heliport and the flight to Copiapo.

At the hospital, all the miners will be kept for 48 hours of observation that will begin when the last one exits the escape shaft.

News services contributed to this report.