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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 January 2008, 10:46 GMT
In graphics: Aurora Borealis polar ship
European ship designers are currently working on what is billed as the "most advanced polar research vessel in the world."

Aurora Borealis, as it is called, is set for launch in 2014 and promises to shed light on a host of polar mysteries. Explore more about the ship's distinctive features using the links below.

Drilling platformMoon poolsAzimuth propulsionGPSScience capabilityDynamic positioningIce breakingOverview


Proposed: 2002
Design: 2007-2011
Construction: 2012-2014
Launch: 2014
Lifetime: 40 years

Aurora Borealis, is the brainchild of the European Science Foundation (ESF) and researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

"It's a unique ship," said Dr Paul Egerton, Executive Director, European Polar Board.

"It will look at the deep hydrothermal vents, the deep ocean ridges where there is volcanic activity, deep sediments, biological processes in the shallow waters as well as current observations of weather conditions and climate."

It will be the world's first ice-breaker that is also a drilling ship and will operate year-round, although it will only drill in the summer months.

Initially it will be used in the Arctic but it is envisaged it will also be used for Antarctic expeditions.

It is currently one of 35 large-scale research infrastructure projects being funded by the European Union.

Norway and Russia have both signalled their interest in helping to build and operate the vessel.

The final design is currently being drawn up by marine architects in Germany and Finland.


Unlike most ice-breakers Aurora Borealis will be able to break ice laterally, as well as by advancing forwards and backwards.

This is important to allow the vessel to hold its position in ice-covered waters.

To accomplish this, the vessel has been designed with deliberately steep sides and will use ice strengthened propellers.

"It is able to break the ice which then goes beneath the ship and is washed away by the propeller system," explained Dr Egerton.

Scale models of the design have already been tested successfully in Germany and Finland.

For conventional ice-breaking, the vessel will have twin steel hulls (8-10cm thick at the bow and stern).

Initial design concept:
Length: 180m
Beam: 40m
Max. speed: 15 knots
Voyage: up to 60 days
Crew: 120

If the outer hull is punctured the inner will hopefully remain intact.

It will also have a flat rather than pointed bow to allow the ship to drive forwards, rise up on the ice and let the weight of the ship break the ice.

Diesel engines will propel the ship along.


Robot submarine

The ship will house between 50 and 70 scientists onboard.

As well as allowing them to routinely drill the Arctic sea floor, Aurora Borealis will be equipped with a suite of scientific instruments.

Researchers will be able to use boats and a helicopter for direct observations as well as tools for remote surveys of the sea floor.

The ship will also pack echo sounders along with seismic gravity and magnetic systems.

In addition, the ship will be able to launch remotely operated vehicles underneath the ice for direct sampling of the sea floor.

Onboard, the ship will be packed with facilities including clean rooms, deep freeze specimen stores and labs with "floating floors" to protect sensitive equipment against vibrations.

Design: 12m euros
Construction: 300m euros
Operation: 12m euros/year

Scientists will also be able to use high-speed internet and fast data transmission systems to and from shore-labs.


drilling ship

Only one drilling expedition has ever been mounted in the central Arctic Ocean because of the expense and difficulty.

Then, three ships were used: one to drill and two to circle the vessel keeping the ice away.

"The piece of ocean crust at the centre of the Central Arctic Ocean is the least known of any crust in the entire ocean," said Professor Joern Thiede.

But Aurora Borealis should allow scientists to routinely drill the Arctic sea floor through the summer months.

The rig, which will only operate in summer, will be able to bore up to 1,000m (3,300ft) into the seafloor in water depths of 5,000m (16,400ft).

It will be kept in the same spot using its dynamic positioning system and lateral ice-breaking capability.


The ship will contain two 7m-diameter (23ft) moon pools, openings in the bottom of the hull to allow scientist direct access to the ocean beneath the ice.

One of the pools will be used to give the drilling rig access to ice-free water.

The other will be used for sampling and to launch autonomous unmanned vehicles (AUV) and remotely operated vehicles (ROV).

Usually these vehicles are launched by a crane over the side of the vessel.

Radar for echo location
Sonar for water depth
Clinometer records ship's motion
Ice forecasting system
Speed log

However, as Aurora Borealis will operate surrounded by ice floes this will be impossible.

"[The moon pools] guarantee a very safe and protected environment," explained Professor Joern Thiede of the Alfred Wegener institute, in Germany.



At the moment the designers of the ship say that it will use either the Russian Glosnass or American GPS system for navigation.

However, it could eventually take advantage of the European Galileo system, which is currently being built and is expected to come on line in 2012.

As well as being used to accurately pinpoint the vessel for navigation, sample collection and scientific surveys, the designers envisage using one of the systems to control the ship's dynamic positioning system.



This will use satellite-controlled bow thrusters and azipods - electrically driven propellers mounted on a steerable pod - to keep the ship in position whilst drilling.

Azipods, commonly used on a large cruise ship, are able to turn through 360 degrees and use forward-facing propellers to keep the vessel in position.

They will be used in conjunction with the main azimuth steering system at the stern of the vessel to keep it in position to an accuracy of 1m.

Many Arctic ice-breakers use nuclear reactors
Antarctic treaties do not allow nuclear power
Diesel engines will be used to produce power
Two engines will generate 55MW

Retractable bow thrusters which are positioned at right angles to the length of the ship will increase its manoeuvrability.

One of the challenges of building the ship is designing azipods strong enough to break any ice that is pushed underneath the vessel.


Azimuth thrusters (copyright: Siemens)

The main propulsion for the ship is a so-called azimuth system.

These propellers are mounted on pods which can be rotated in any horizontal direction, doing away with the need for a conventional rudder.

The ice strengthened system will give the ship better manoeuvrability than a standard craft.

The diesel engine driven propeller-pods also play a key role in the ships "dynamic positioning" system which, allows it to maintain an almost constant position whilst drilling.

Aurora Borealis

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