Onboard the Space Station at the End of the World

Traveling to the bottom of the planet inside Australia's new, world-class icebreaker, the RSV Nuyina.

On Christmas Day 2021, all was quiet aboard the RSV Nuyina. The vessel was holding position in Storm Bay, at the southern end of Australia, only a few miles from shore. The crew were holding their tongues.

Every so often, the ship's announcement system would bing bong and the shipmaster's voice would boom out a warning. Don't flush the toilet. Don't bang any doors. Keep conversation to a minimum. The vessel's acoustic scientists had dropped a listening device off the back of the Nuyina into the ocean early on Christmas morning to test how quiet the ship was as it sailed. Any banging or flushing — even farting, joked the shipmaster — would mess with the experiment.

Three days earlier, I'd trudged up the slightly swaying gangplank of the Nuyina (pronounced "noy-yee-nah"), the Australian Antarctic Division's new AU$529 million (US$373 million) icebreaker, with a backpack full of electronics, 10 woolen sweaters, seven paperback books, five notepads, two pairs of shorts, two Android phones and one Polaroid camera, joining 66 expeditioners and crew for the ship's maiden voyage to Antarctica. 

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A view from the Nuyina's Observation Deck.

Jackson Ryan

The bizarre Christmas was an unofficial start to the multiyear process of commissioning the ship's scientific instruments. "This voyage is a really critical first step in setting up the next 30 years," said Lloyd Symons, the voyage leader. 

Though Antarctica rests isolated over the planet's southern pole, it's not protected from the disastrous effects of human-induced climate change. Some parts of the continent are warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, leading to changes in sea ice conditions, weather patterns and wildlife populations. And the effects are not localized; what happens in Antarctica does not necessarily stay in Antarctica. Heating in the region will have global impacts, as sea levels rise and ocean circulation is disrupted.

The Nuyina is a ship perfectly positioned to monitor and understand how these changes will affect the rest of the world. It's been described as "Disneyland for scientists," but given that it's dotted with antennas and huge cranes and lined with specialized scientific instruments across its hull, it feels much more NASA than House of Mouse. 

It's essentially the International Space Station, a rocket ship and a luxury cruise liner all in one, and its destination is just as isolated and hostile to human life as low Earth orbit. Living on the ship and learning its rhythms feels about as close as you can get to being in space without leaving the planet.

I spent 39 days on the space station-cruise ship as it sailed to two Australian Antarctic outposts and a monstrous glacier in December 2021 and January 2022. I interviewed the scientists and engineers on board to understand its capability to perform cutting-edge research at the bottom of the world and how its design and instruments will be used to assess the impacts of climate change in the future. And yes, I spent time in the ship's theater watching John Carpenter's The Thing.

Over the journey, the ship would need to tick off a number of milestones, commissioning pioneering scientific instruments as it sailed the Southern Ocean. It would also need to accomplish a series of challenging firsts, including refueling Australia's lifeline to the Antarctic, the Casey Station outpost, with 1 million liters of a special diesel blend. None of the Nuyina's systems had been used in the Antarctic before — it would be a journey into the unknown. 

But before the ship had even left port, it encountered problems with its alarm system, delaying departure by two days. When the Nuyina first encountered sea ice, an instrument used to map the ocean floor snapped off the underside of the ship and was lost to the Southern Ocean. 

Worse still, as the vessel sailed into the Antarctic Circle and approached the icy continent, it appeared as if the Nuyina was destined to avoid the ice altogether. 

Into the ice

You've probably never heard of a drop keel, but on the Nuyina's maiden voyage, the component threatened to sink the ambitions of the science team. 

Shaped like an aircraft wing and covered in sensitive instruments, the drop keel juts down out of the underside of the ship like a hangnail. It's designed to be lowered during sailing to conduct surveys, enabling researchers to map the ocean floor and see and hear the marine life in the Southern Ocean.

During the first week of the voyage, after lowering the starboard drop keel just 30 inches below the hull, engineers encountered a problem: The keel wouldn't retract. A pin, designed to hold it in place, was stuck. 

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This illustrative diagram points out the drop keel's location on the Nuyina. The vessel actually has two drop keels, side by side, which are equipped with scientific instruments to survey the ocean depths.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

If the Nuyina was to smash through ice, there was a danger the crushed remnants would slip below the waves and slam into the drop keel. The chief concern was for the sensitive scientific instruments that adorn the keel. Jagged fragments of ice could do real damage. 

No matter what the crew attempted, a quick fix seemed futile. At one point, an expeditioner returning to their cabin noted a ship engineer sitting cross-legged on the floor, schematics laid haphazardly all around. Other expeditioners wanted to help fix the problem themselves. One volunteered to don scuba gear, enter the freezing water and swim underneath the Nuyina to manually pluck out the pin. 

That plan was never given any real thought.

The vessel's major mission on its first voyage was to reach Casey Station, on the East Antarctic fringe, and deliver about 265,000 gallons of fuel. Before that, it would need to resupply Australia's Davis station further west, using helicopters to cart supplies, such as food, booze and mail, from ship to shore.

On the approach to Davis, about 10 days into the journey, the ship was confronted by an ocean dense with heavy sea ice. Thousands of floes jutted across the surface of the ocean at acute angles, as far as the eye could see. With the drop keel down and vulnerable, the ship master and crew had to decide whether they'd push through and risk damage, or skirt the boundary of the ice. 

They chose the latter, keeping to the edge of the sea ice before snaking through lighter floes and into the bay near Davis Station. But the maneuvering posed another question: Would Australia's new icebreaker actually break ice on its first voyage to Antarctica?

That question would linger until refueling at Casey Station was complete. In the meantime, there was science to do. 

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Standing 6-foot-6 and confidently rocking an exposed scalp, Rob King faces a persistent challenge aboard the Nuyina: making sure his head doesn't get split open by a door frame. 

When I find him leaning over one of the Nuyina's purpose-built aquariums full of prized Antarctic crustaceans and other miniature sea beasts, it feels like a mythical scene: a Titan surveying his domain.

A man in spectacles leans over a white tank full of water. In his right hand is a small net used for grabbing krill.

Rob King tends to his krill aquarium aboard the RSV Nuyina.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

King, a krill biologist with the Australian Antarctic Division, has been studying the Antarctic's most important food source for over three decades. In that time, he's developed techniques to improve catches in the Southern Ocean and helped design world-class aquariums at the Division's headquarters in Kingston, Tasmania. He's on board the Nuyina to try to capture a fresh stock of krill from the Antarctic. 

Antarctic krill, 2-inch-long crustaceans with bulging black eyes and a transparent exoskeleton, are the Southern Ocean's keystone species. They support the Antarctic ecosystem by providing food for wildlife such as whales, seals and penguins, and they're incredibly abundant, making up about one-40th of all animal biomass on Earth — comparable to the biomass of humans.

Typically, capturing krill involves trawling. Researchers drop a net off the back of a ship, which balloons out in the ocean around a swarm of krill. Closing the net traps the crustaceans and pulls them back up to the surface. But the Nuyina includes a world-first: As the ship was being constructed, engineers added three holes into the hull that connect to a room dubbed the wet well.

Antarctic krill are one of the most abundant creatures on Earth.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

It's a room King dreamed up some 15 years ago to catch Antarctic krill in pristine condition and bring them back to Tasmania.

As the Nuyina sails south, water flows in through the holes, which are connected to the wet well, or what King describes as "effectively a very wet room." As the water moves into the ship, it brings marine life with it — krill, copepods, phytoplankton — as if vacuuming them up from the ocean.

"It's a way of collecting specimens without dragging a big net through the water," King says.

On the Nuyina's maiden voyage, the wet well would finally be put to the test. King's dream would be realized – or not. 


In the early morning of Dec. 30, 2021, King and Nuyina aquarist Anton Rocconi opened the wet well's valve for the first time at sea, sampling the Southern Ocean's wintry water.

The water passed through pipes in the starboard side of the ship, across a raised table in the center of the wet well and into a tank at its end. Almost as soon as it gurgled on, sea life started pouring in. 

Sea butterflies, wings still flapping gracefully, began to fill buckets. Amphipods, voracious shrimplike predators, followed. Krill were barreling in too, but not the Antarctic species the pair were hoping to capture. On that first operation, the Nuyina was still 1,000 miles or so from the Antarctic krill's stomping grounds. The prize catch of the voyage was yet to be seen, but the run buoyed spirits.

Rocconi (left) and King (right) at the filter table inside the wet well, waiting to capture Antarctic krill as they pour in from outside the ship.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

The pair became more optimistic because the catch was in such pristine condition. Trawl nets can do damage to sea life by crushing creatures as they're ripped from the ocean, but the wet well is a far more gentle hand. At lunch, the high-energy Rocconi, curly mullet swinging side to side behind his head, seemed more certain than ever the wet well would work.

He and King started waking up early, at around 3 a.m., a time when krill come close to the surface to feed. They'd switch on the wet well and try again.

On Jan. 2, the pair struck a rich vein of crustacean gold. The first Antarctic krill sloshed through the pipe and across the filter table, slipping by Rocconi. The moment was the culmination of decades of work for King, but in a weird twist of fate, it was data technician Tess Chapman who claimed the honor of spotting the Nuyina's first Antarctic krill. 

In the early days of the voyage, Rocconi said he was hopeful of catching 500 critters by the time the Nuyina returned to Tasmania. The day after the first catch, on Jan. 3, the team caught 2,000. Hooting and hollering broke out in the room as water splashed across the filter table and under foot. The wet well worked, and it worked superbly.

"That was what I dreamed it could always deliver," King said.

Rocconi inspects a krill catch in the Nuyina's containerized aquarium.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

Through the ice

On the Nuyina's science deck there's a hole. It sits in the corner of a room, and the deep sea instrument that hangs over it smells like decaying fish.

If you fell down the 45-foot-long shaft, you'd end up wet, cold – maybe even dead.  

The hole is the Nuyina's "moon pool," and it allows scientists to access the Southern Ocean through the middle of the ship. You can think of it like the moon door from Game of Thrones; an opening to the great beyond below. Fortunately, the Nuyina's moon pool has two hatches, at the top and bottom, so expeditioners can't be kicked into it unwillingly (at least, not from what I saw).

It's a critical component of the Nuyina because it allows scientists to access the ocean underneath the ice. Typically, research vessels deploy instruments or underwater drones over the side or back of the ship, lowering them slowly to the ocean floor with miles-long cables. But when the ship is amid ice in the Antarctic Ocean, that's impossible. Instead, if you want to see what's lurking underneath, you have to get off the ship and cut a hole through before you can lower instruments down.

The Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) instrument entering the moon pool.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

The Nuyina's moon pool sidesteps that problem, giving scientists access to a world that was previously unreachable. It's a place where alien sea creatures swarm and where cold ocean water rests before circulating around the planet. It's a place that has barely been explored at all — but it could be critical for understanding climate change.

Climate scientists worry about how global warming is affecting Antarctica's abyssal depths. Recent studies show the water lying at the bottom of the Southern Ocean is getting warmer and less salty, which could spell disaster for global ocean currents and how they circulate, throwing weather systems into chaos. But the effects of the change can be evaluated only with constant monitoring. With a moon pool, the Nuyina can deliver constant access, sampling the icy world and understanding how it changes. 

On its maiden voyage, Nuyina sent down instruments through the moon pool while anchored in the Southern Ocean, sampling water and taking temperature and conductivity measurements. Watching instruments descend down the shaft feels like seeing spacecraft slowly launched from the ISS, departing into a murky black void. And future experiments will bring this imagery even closer to fruition as expeditioners and scientists send down autonomous underwater vehicles and drones. 

Jackson Ryan

In March, scientists on a South African icebreaker in Antarctica's Weddell Sea showed how useful underwater drones can be in surveilling the world beneath the ice: They discovered the wreck of the Endurance, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship. The 106-year-old wreck was full of life. Ghostly sea squirts, spindly sea stars and even a pale white crab had colonized the sunken ship. 

Drones will be key to understanding the ecosystems that exist below the East Antarctic ice and will help reveal more about these unknown worlds — and others across the solar system. NASA, for instance, has tested autonomous drones that could reveal the alien worlds that exist under the ice surrounding Antarctica. These tests will pave the way for drones to be sent to the frozen moons of Jupiter and Saturn, dropping into subsurface oceans on Europa and Enceladus. 

Data on ice

Johnathan Kool is hunting for the elusive and mysterious Planet Nine, a theoretical cosmic body lurking beyond the orbit of Neptune.

The observation deck of the Nuyina might seem like a strange place to search for planets, but this isn't real life — it's a card game known as The Crew, which works a bit like Hearts. Whenever he has a morning off, Kool joins me and the ship's two doctors to resume the game and our planetary search.  

In the ship's newsletter, Kool, the data center manager at the Australian Antarctic Division, gets compared with the History Channel's "Aliens" meme guy. But he's far less disheveled and much more honest than the likeness suggests. 

For most of his career, he's been working with unwieldy, massive datasets, running complicated computer simulations and models that take into account hundreds, if not thousands, of variables. "I think I was big data before it was 'big data,'" he often remarks.

Johnathan Kool was big data before it was "big data."

Pete Harmsen/AAD

His major task on the Nuyina's maiden voyage is to ensure that the ship's science instruments work in harmony with its data systems, delivering real-time information to anyone working aboard the ship. He says that if he's doing his job well, no one should really notice him, and his major challenge in wrangling data follows on directly from his love of games like The Crew. 

"I've always been attracted to the cooperative ones," he says. "I like trying to win against the system."

And on the Nuyina's first voyage, the system is a handful. The ship records information from 70 instruments, including sensors that measure particles in the water; sonar that looks for schools of fish and krill; meteorological instruments measuring ultraviolet radiation, humidity and air temperature; webcams; CCTV; hydrophones; echo sounders and CTDs (which measure conductivity, temperature and depth). Kool, and data technician Tess Chapman, have to ensure the endless stream of ones and zeros is filtering in correctly and in a way that's comprehensible to the ship's scientists.

In an ideal world, those scientists wouldn't even need to be on the Nuyina, Kool says. Instead, they'd be able to access data collected by the ship, in real time, from anywhere in the world. A biologist in Portugal could follow blue whales as they feed on krill; A meteorologist could monitor changes in air pressure to help predict weather conditions.

Expeditioners monitor incoming data from Nuyina's suite of instruments.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

On the first journey, this would've been impossible. The Nuyina's unstable satellite internet connection was one of the biggest bugbears for expeditioners. It had a maximum download speed of 4Mbps, the average internet speed in a US household in 2008, and an upload speed of 1Mbps. Downloading a PDF on the ship would take an entire morning. Calling home via WhatsApp was an impossibility. Sometimes, there'd be no internet connection at all.

It's easy to see this as a first-world problem, but improved connectivity is key to opening up science in the Antarctic. Big data is the most valuable thing to researchers, and in the modern world the internet forms the backbone of those systems. Kool even mentions Starlink, the SpaceX satellite broadband network, as a good example of potentially cheap ways to improve connectivity in the future. 

Kool isn't focused just on data, though. His other job is to supervise the AAD's seabed mapping program. The Nuyina is an invaluable new ally in a worldwide project to map the entire ocean floor by 2030, using acoustic instruments to illuminate the world below.

During its maiden voyage, the Nuyina showcased just how instrumental it'll be in uncovering the secrets of the Southern Ocean floor.

Under the ice

Open Google Maps and zoom out until you can see the Earth as an orb, floating in space. Focus on the ocean, and you'll clearly see the shadows of ridges and valleys; scars on the planet's face that crisscross the ocean floor. 

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The study of these curves, peaks and valleys on the seafloor is known as "bathymetry," and there's evidence for humans performing these studies as early as 3,000 years ago, in ancient Egypt. Much of what you see on Google Maps is determined by satellites. But these aren't actual observations. They're rough estimates of how the planet looks beneath the waves, obtained by studying data from those satellites.

The true contours of the ocean floor largely remain a mystery.

"We know more about the surface of Mars than we do our own planet," Kool says. "We have about 80% to 90% of Mars mapped, whereas the oceans are only at about 20%."

Bathymetry is fundamental to understanding the geological processes that affect our planet and the history of the Antarctic. Tens of thousands of years ago, when sea levels were lower, glaciers extended further out from the continent, leaving deep voids in the Earth that are now covered by water.

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Echo sounders work like a bat or dolphin, sending out sound waves and listening for the cho

Jackson Ryan/Robert Rodriguez

"There's a physical story that's preserved on the bottom of the seafloor," says Matt King, a professor of polar geodesy at the University of Tasmania and director of the Australian Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science. "Human eyes have never seen that."

Floyd Howard, an acoustics officer aboard the ship, explains that the vessel contains active acoustic instruments known as echo sounders, which emit sound and listen for the echo to bounce back off the seafloor. "This is what a bat does at night, or a dolphin does in the sea," he says.

During the first voyage, Howard and acoustic officers Jill Brouwer and Alison Herbert used the ship's echo sounders to map a 7,200 foot deep canyon extending underneath the Vanderford glacier in East Antarctica. In 2018, NASA scientists revealed that Vanderford and nearby glaciers had been losing almost a foot of ice each year since 2009. They reasoned this change might be due to warmer ocean currents from the north winding their way to the Antarctic, sneaking up on the glaciers and melting them from below. 

The Nuyina's echo sounders were also able to see underneath the glacier for over two miles, showcasing the ship's ability to image parts of the Antarctic never seen before. The videos the instruments produce feel otherworldly — rainbow-colored trenches show the ship's path through the unmapped dark. A spacecraft charting an abyss.

A flythrough of the Vanderford "Void." The dark blue regions are up to 7,200 feet deep.

AAD

By providing such a detailed map of what lies beneath, the Nuyina forms a critical part of predicting Vanderford's future. "It's a glacier that is retreating and sensitive to a warming climate, but it turns out we don't have a lot of observations of this region," notes Felicity McCormack, a glaciologist at Monash University in Melbourne who's studying Vanderford. 

She says the data collected by the Nuyina will be incredibly important when it comes to looking at how the glacier might change in the future. 

Vanderford was the penultimate stop on the Nuyina's journey before it made for home. The voyage was missing one critical milestone: Breaking the ice.

The Nuyina's hull is specially designed to bend and break ice up to 5 foot thick.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

Break the ice

Petersen Bank is an iceberg graveyard.

Its shallow waters trap mammoth icebergs until they melt or, shrinking, free themselves and drift out to sea. But the Nuyina comes to rest in front of a seemingly endless expanse of "fast ice," water frozen to the continent's shore. From the crow's nest, a few icebergs are visible, as big as mountain ranges and poking out of a truly alien landscape, a white sheet that extends to the horizon.

With station resupply and refueling complete — and despite the drop keel remaining exposed underneath the ship — a decision is made: The Nuyina will break Antarctic ice for the first time. 

After idling the ship at the edge of the ice, the master sends the command to steam straight ahead. The ship's engines power its thrust forward, taking the first nibbles at the edge of the fast ice and causing Adélie penguins to scatter and dive into the water. Further afield are Emperor penguins, the largest species, but they appear unperturbed. 

The cracking of ice barely registers over the sound of the wind buffeting the ship, but if you get close enough, you can hear the Nuyina rumbling forward. You can hear the ice give way, unleashing shrill cracks as it slips below the bow. Then, if you head to the back of the ship, you can see the trail of destruction that lies in her wake — literally. 

The Nuyina pushes through fast ice in Petersen Bank.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

Smashing through the frozen mass caused a chunk of ice, bigger than a football field, to begin drifting out to sea. A jagged line runs backward, to where the Nuyina entered the ice. Bits of ice have accumulated in the newly opened passage, bridging the gap. An Adélie penguin, chased by a seal, zooms out of the water and onto the ice bridge. 

Expeditioners fill the upper decks of the ship to snap their keepsake pictures with telephoto lenses and smartphones. This is really the definitive moment for the Nuyina — breaking ice in Antarctica is what the ship was built to do. The ship rests within the ice for hours. Surrounded by the purest white as far as the eye can see. Very few people will ever experience a moment like this and, with that realization, I'm reminded of space again. A vast nothingness fundamental to understanding who we are and why we're here.

Eventually, the master orders the Nuyina to back up. The wildlife flees, the expeditioners return to cabins and workstations, and the ship sets course for her final destination: home.

In just four weeks, blessed by the weather and oceans, the Nuyina completed a number of historic firsts. It was able to supply Casey Station with 1 million liters of fuel and deliver helicopters and supplies to Davis. Its scientific instruments were put through their paces, mapping features of the ocean floor, capturing krill in perfect condition and reaching just feet above the seabed to assess the ship's state-of-the-art moon pool. Finally, it had broken ice. 

The ship sailed into Hobart on Jan. 30, 2022, as the sun crested over Mount Wellington. 

Seventeen days later, refueled and restocked, the Nuyina was once again blasting her way to Antarctica.


Lead and final image by Pete Harmsen/AAD. CNET traveled to Antarctica with the support of the Australian Antarctic Program.
Correction May 3: Originally this piece stated krill are 1/40th all biomass on Earth. This should have said "animal biomass."