Full steam ahead for £200m polar research ship

Posted on 18 Oct 2016 by Victoria Fitzgerald

Development of the UK’s £200m new polar research ship, RRS Sir David Attenborough, reached a major milestone yesterday with the laying of the ship’s ‘keel’ in Merseyside.

Construction of RRS Sir David Attenborough will support 460 jobs and apprenticeships in Merseyside.

Construction was officially started by world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, after whom the ship is named, during a ceremonial event at Cammell Laird’s shipyard in Birkenhead.

Sir David began the “keel laying” process by initiating the lifting by crane of the first hull unit, weighing approximately 100 tonnes, of to the construction berth. This unit includes part of the ships keel and bottom shell plating and is the first of 97 units which will be erected to form the entire hull of the research ship.

When the ship sets sail in 2019, the RRS Sir David Attenborough will provide a research base to help scientists tackle some of the most important issues facing humanity, including climate change, future sea level rise and the impact of environmental change on marine life.

The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Boaty McBoatface and the research ship’s missions are set to be the focal point on a new £1m Government-funded Polar Explorer Programme that aims to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and citizens by engaging young people with the RRS Sir David Attenborough and polar science.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said: “The RRS Sir David Attenborough, with Boaty McBoatface operated from her as a robotic underwater vehicle, will be one of the most advanced research ships in the world.

“It will help inspire the next generation of scientists in the UK and build on our status as one of the world’s leading nations in polar science, engineering and technology.

“With Merseyside’s proud history and expertise in ship building, this project will support over 460 local jobs and apprenticeships, and provide a boost to the region and the whole Northern Powerhouse.”

Speaking at the ceremony Sir David Attenborough will said: “It is an honour to be invited to take part in the keel-laying ceremony. The Polar Regions are not only critical for understanding the natural world but they also have an enormous appeal for journalists, broadcasters and the public.

“I have had several opportunities to experience the power of these places first hand. This new ship will ensure that scientists have access to these enigmatic regions to uncover secrets that we can only imagine at this point. Scientists working on this new ship will inform everyone about our changing world for generations to come.”

Keel-laying is a maritime engineering tradition that formally marks the start of a ship’s construction with a ceremony that is said to bring luck to the ship during construction and to the captain and crew during its later life.

At £200m, this is the biggest Government investment in Antarctic and Arctic science infrastructure since the 1980s and will enable the UK research community to conduct world-leading polar research for the next 25 years.

The funding will also cover the development of projects to support the ship’s work including construction of a new wharf at the largest British Antarctic facility, Rothera Research Station.

Commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and built by Cammell Laird, the RRS Sir David Attenborough will transform the UK’s polar research capability.

Construction was officially started by world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough. Image courtesy of Johann Edwin Heupel
Construction was officially started by world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough. Image courtesy of Johann Edwin Heupel on Flickr.

With state-of-the-art facilities on board, the new ship will enable more ambitious expeditions and deploy advanced marine robotics to explore inaccessible areas.

Following a call for suggestions at the start of the year, the ship was named after the world renowned naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, capturing the ship’s scientific mission and celebrating the broadcaster’s contributions to natural science.

Also unveiled at the Birkenhead shipyard was the remotely controlled autonomous underwater vehicle, Boaty McBoatface, named in recognition of the popular suggestion in the voting contest. The vehicle will be deployed from the ship and will be used to explore under ice sheets, diving 6,000m deep and able to remain at sea for many months at a time.

These submarine vehicles will help scientists better understand changes in the Polar Regions, including the extent of the ice melt, and conduct a range of research in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans.

The Polar Explorer Programme, being developed by STEM Learning Ltd, will provide a package of online resources such as videos and images for teachers at low attaining primary and secondary schools.

The suite of resources will help increase engagement, achievement and literacy in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects amongst students. The material will also be available for the public.

The educational support will be available for teachers from March 2017 at 100 schools, and will be gradually rolled out to a further 400 schools by January 2019, running over the next four years.