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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

Fun facts about the RSV Nuyina icebreaker research vessel

Nuyina under tow to finish construction. Image Credit: Australian Antarctic Program.

It’s Fun Fact Friday and today we’re going to take a look at the Australian vessel Nuyina. A supply ship, research vessel, and icebreaker all rolled into one, it’s a unique and impressive ship that will bring supplies to Antarctic research bases. During these long trips, scientists will complete plenty of research themselves with new technologies on this cutting edge ship. We’ll also take a look at icebreakers, what goes into building a research vessel like this, the Tasmanian origins of the name Nuyina, and why studying Antarctica is so important.

What’s an icebreaker?

Icebreakers are ships designed to travel through ice-covered waters, either for their own purpose or to lead other ships. According to Marine Insight, “The significant features that make the ice-breakers different from other vessels are its strengthened hull to resist ice waters, a specially designed ice-clearing shape to make a path forward and extreme power to navigate through sea ice.” The hulls are two layers of thicker steel than normal ships, designed to be resistant to low temperatures to eliminate brittle fracture. While most ships have a pointed hull for slicing through waves, the rounded front of an icebreaker is designed to break through ice and ride over it.

Aurora Australis in the Antarctic. Image Credit: gCaptain.

What’s special about the Nuyina?

The RSV Nuyina is a research and supply vessel (RSV) constructed to support Australian bases in Antarctica. After a signed contract in 2016 and keel laying in 2017, the now 99% complete ship just went on a 7000 kilometer journey to a new shipyard to finish the last bit of construction. It was built in Romania and has been towed to the Dutch port of Vlissingen. It’s one of the most advanced research vessels in the world, and the last equipment installs and testing will be performed in the Netherlands. According to the Australian Antarctic Program, “This will allow teams of equipment installers from Western Europe to access the ship for final commissioning of essential propulsion, electrical and navigation systems, after work was suspended due to the pandemic.” The tow already caused a scrape with the bank of the Danube River when the tow boat had to adjust course to avoid a pontoon. Since it is built to break ice 1.65 meters thick, this definitely won’t be its last scratch. The Nuyina is being towed by tugboat because it hasn’t completed sea trials and isn’t certified to run under its own power.

Nuyina under tow. Image Credit: Australian Antarctic Program

Just some of Nuyina's features are four fiber optic cables on winches that can supply power and data to obtain more information during research. There’s also a moonpool that will let researchers perform deployments through the ice for study, as well as a wet well for water samples at any time. Containerized labs will be connected to the power, data, water, and alarm systems for experiments and study. They also have an onboard web service to share information to devices anywhere on the ship, increasing safety and efficiency for scientists, meaning less exposure to the elements and watching of deployments. All this state-of-the-art technology doesn't come cheap, Australia made a $1.9 billion investment in the new vessel, including $1.4 billion for ongoing operations and maintenance for the next 30 years. The ship is expected to arrive in Hobart in 2021 and provide needed supplies between Macquarie Island and their three Antarctic substations. Check out the innovation video on the Australian Antarctic Program website for more information.

Why build the Nuyina?

The RSV Nuyina will replace the Aurora Australis. It will be faster, larger, and stronger than the ship it replaces. It will also be quiet enough for scientists to use instruments while running and supply two Antarctic stations during one voyage. According to the Australian Antarctic Program, “The vessel will accommodate 34 Serco crew and up to 116 AAD scientific personnel, and has the ability to embark up to four helicopters, two landing craft and a dedicated science tender.” In short, a more advanced, larger ship was needed for resupply missions.

What does Nuyina mean?

The Nuyina was named after the southern lights. In palawa kani, the language of the native Tasmanian Aborigines, ‘nuyina’ means ‘southern lights’. “The southern lights, also known as aurora australis, are an atmospheric phenomenon formed over Antarctica that reaches northwards to light up Australian — and particularly Tasmanian — skies. Australia’s current long-serving icebreaker, the RSV Aurora Australis, bears the name of the southern lights, while the first Australian Antarctic ship, Sir Douglas Mawson’s SY Aurora was named after the same phenomenon.” The Tasmanian Aboriginal people have a long connection with the Southern Lights, and the new ship will continue the theme of the connection between Australia and Antarctica. The name was suggested by Australian schoolchildren in a naming contest for the new icebreaker.

Southern lights. Image Credit: Scientific American.

Why study Antarctica?

Antarctica has a large effect on Earth’s climate and ocean systems. It’s a remote, uninhabited continent with 4 kilometers of ice beneath it, a record of a million years of our planet’s history. It helps us understand the worldwide ecosystem and humans’ impact on our environment. Mostly untouched, its icy land is the prime location to study the world as well as the universe above. It’s also a gorgeous natural resource, drawing 30,000 tourists every year to its glaciers, panoramic views, and of course, penguins!

Replacing the gearbox on a star tracking device.© British Antarctic Survey, Chris Gilbert. Image Credit: Discovering Antarctica.

Adelie penguins. Image Credit: ThoughtCo.


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