Wartsila and The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, part of the Helmholtz Association, yesterday presented in Berlin the technical design of the European Research vessel "Aurora Borealis", a multi-purpose icebreaker, deep-sea drilling, and research ship for polar sea conditions.
"Aurora Borealis" will be a unique vessel - a combination of a heavy icebreaker, a scientific drilling ship, and a multi-purpose research platform that can operate year-round in all polar waters. When completed, it will be the world's most sophisticated research vessel.
Because of European interest in, and proximity to the Arctic environment, the "Aurora Borealis" project was included in the priority list of the European Commission's "European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures" (ESFRI) within the 7th Framework Programme as one of only seven projects in the "Environmental Sciences" section. Following up on this process, 15 institutions and agencies from ten European nations, including Norway and the Russian Federation, founded the "European Research Icebreaker Consortium" (ERICON). The European Commission has funded the preparatory phase with EUR 4.5 million.
In 2006, the German Science and Humanities Council recommended construction of "Aurora Borealis", and the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research has funded the technical design process and planning works with EUR 5.2 million, as a precondition for a later realisation. The anticipated construction costs as of 2008 are around EUR 650 million. Germany has been active in polar research for more than 25 years, most notably with its research icebreaker "Polarstern". The Alfred Wegener Institute is also globally connected, by more than 74 co-operational agreements, to the most important international research centres for polar and marine research.
Subject to sufficient financial support, the preparations for the construction of the vessel should be completed by 2011, and construction could start as early as 2012. This would enable the first scientific operations to be undertaken in 2014 or thereabouts.
"Aurora Borealis" will further strengthen the operational capabilities of the European scientific community. Since there are currently no research icebreakers of comparable size and capacity for year-round autonomous operations in polar waters, this project promises to facilitate for the first time year-round expeditions into some of the most extreme realms of our planet, thus helping to gain new insights into the history, climatic variability, and the present environmental conditions of the polar regions.
Access to the Arctic Ocean and the ability to cope with pack ice are essential in order to perform scientific drilling, so that the unresolved questions of climate change and variability can be answered. "Aurora Borealis" will thus be equipped with a drilling rig that enables researchers to drill more than 1000 m into the sea floor, in water depths between 100 and 5000 m. For the first time, scientific deep-sea drilling will become possible even in drifting pack ice, without need of support from additional icebreakers. To perform these drilling operations, the ship has to be kept exactly in position on the floating ice. A dynamic positioning system capable for manoeuvring in ice - an absolute novelty in the shipping industry - is mandatory for this task. Extensive model tests in the ice tanks of the Hamburg Ship Model Basin (HSVA) and Aker Arctic Research Centre in Helsinki, Finland, have proven that "Aurora Borealis" will indeed be able to dynamically position in ice cover of two or more metres thickness.
Another unique characteristic of "Aurora Borealis" design are the two seven by seven metres moon pools. These are continuous vertical funnels in the midst of the hull going into the water below the vessel, enabling scientists to deploy their equipment into the ocean without being subject to wind, waves and ice. The aft moon pool is mainly dedicated to drilling operations, while the forward moon pool is reserved for most other scientific works. This allows, for the first time, deployment of very sensitive and expensive equipment, such as remotely operated or autonomous underwater vehicles, within closed sea ice cover. Scientific laboratories are located on several decks around the moon pool, which is designed in an atrium-like shape with circular walkways and preparation areas. In order to optimally equip the ship for all kinds of specialised expeditions, containerised laboratories can be also loaded here and become fully integrated into the scientific workflow on board.