Musk team heading to Chiang Rai

Musk team heading to Chiang Rai

A worker takes a break during the pumping operation at the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai on Saturday afternoon. (Reuters Photo)
A worker takes a break during the pumping operation at the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai on Saturday afternoon. (Reuters Photo)

A nine-member engineering team dispatched by billionaire Elon Musk is preparing to help with efforts to rescue the 12 young footballers and their coach from the Tham Luang cave, officials said on Saturday.

One of the engineers was already in the country on holiday and two more were to arrive on Saturday evening, followed by the remaining six on Sunday, said Lt Gen Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, a deputy government spokesman.

No expenses would be charged to the government for their services, he added.

The development came as leaders of the rescue effort in Chiang Rai edged closer to a decision on whether it would be practical to bring the boys out over the next few days.

Conditions are "perfect" to stage an evacuation in the coming days before fresh rains and a possible rise in carbon dioxide further imperil the group, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said.

"Now and in the next three or four days, the conditions are perfect in terms of the water, the weather and the boys' health," he told reporters on Saturday afternoon. "We have to make a clear decision on what we can do."

While the oxygen level had stabilised, he warned levels of "carbon dioxide are another factor" in considering when to move the group -- in addition to impending rains which could cover much of the muddy ledge on which the group are sheltering.

"The water level may rise to the area where the children are sitting and make the area less than 10 square metres," he said, citing estimates from cave divers and experts.

Lt Gen Weerachon said the team sent by Mr Musk, best known for electric cars, batteries and tunnelling technology, might provide help such as trying to drill a tunnel to save the group. However, the inventor and entrepreneur has also floated some other ideas.

Mr Musk, who studied physics, has suggested using a double-layer Kevlar pressure pod or a long inflatable air sock to penetrate the narrow passageways and provide a rescue conduit. The tubes and pods are being built in the US, a spokesman said. Some equipment is travelling with the team and some will be express-shipped.

"No need for SCUBA mouthpiece or regulator," he wrote on Twitter about his suggested pods. "Training unnecessary & less susceptible to panic attack."

Mr Musk said the devices were being tested Friday afternoon in a pool with a subject who had never been scuba diving.

Any air sock or tube would have to be tough enough to withstand high water pressure -- potentially two tonnes of force at a depth of 4-5 metres -- and sharp rocks, Douglas Hart, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Bloomberg News.

A Thai Navy SEAL helping with the rescue operation died on Friday, underlining the dangers of navigating the flooded cave system even for those with experience. Cave diving is widely regarded as treacherous and the stranded group has little swimming ability, let alone any diving know-how.

A spokesman for Mr Musk said earlier that the billionaire’s companies may assist by trying to pinpoint the boys’ precise location using Space Exploration Technologies or Boring Co technology, pumping water or providing heavy-duty battery packs known as Tesla Powerwalls.

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