Aurora Borealis will be the first-ever international ship, the brainchild of the European Science Federation, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Maritime Research in Germany and the Germany Federal Ministry of Research and Education. Russia has announced that it will be a partner in launching this state-of-the-art research vessel, and other European nations soon may join the project.
How It Will WorkThe ice over the polar seas masks millions of years of the planet’s history, but drilling is difficult in freezing conditions. Aurora Borealis will be the world’s first icebreaker that also is a drilling ship, which sets unusual challenges for marine engineers: A vessel poised on top of 16,400 feet of drilling rig cannot afford to move very much in any direction. But ice drifts, and currents and winds can alter in moments. So the ship will be designed not just to break the ice as it moves forward and astern, but also to port and starboard.
“We had some early ice tanks tests and they came up with a design that is able to break ice sideways,” says Paul Egerton, head of the European Polar Board within the European Science Federation. “As the ice continually presses against the side of the ship, the pieces of ice go underneath the hull and are washed away by the propulsion system. There is also a kind of damping system so the ship can raise itself up and down vertically to break the ice. It has a propeller that can turn 360 degrees, linked to satellite navigation. A lot of the cruise ships now have this so they can navigate in a very small area. But the propeller also has to break ice: it has to be strengthened.”
Not only will the diesel-electric ship be the floating equivalent of a 55-megawatt power station, it will be an intellectual powerhouse as well. It will be probe the role of polar waters in global climate change. Drill cores from the sea floor could answer questions about the geological history of the Arctic Ocean, and other instruments will measure the transport of contaminants through the air, water and ice. The vessel could be home to 120 people, more than half of them scientists who need to go to sea to study the ice, the ocean beneath and the history of the deep sea floor.
It will be equipped with two “moon pools” in the bottom of the hull to give direct access to the open water beneath the ice, so that drillers can work in freezing conditions and biologists can launch underwater vehicles to study the mysterious processes that trigger an explosion of life in the polar seas every spring. The design and preparation of Aurora Borealis will continue until 2011. Builders could start assembling the hull in 2012, and it could be cruising the oceans in 2014.