RRS Sir David Attenborough

Autumn 2020 onwards
Summer: 90, Winter: 90

A new polar research ship for Britain

The RRS Sir David Attenborough was handed over to NERC and BAS by shipbuilder Cammell Laird on 27 November 2020.   The ship is expected to commence polar operations in 2021 after a period of intensive mariner training, testing and trialling the many technical, scientific and operational features and capabilities. The RRS Sir David Attenborough is one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world.

In October 2020 the technical sea trials and scientific equipment testing began. This multidisciplinary research platform will transform how ship-borne science is conducted in the polar regions and provide scientists with state-of-the-art facilities to research the oceans, seafloor, ice and atmosphere.

The new polar ship was commissioned by NERC, built by Cammell Laird for operation by British Antarctic Survey. The commissioning of the RRS Sir David Attenborough is part of a major Government investment in polar infrastructure which will keep Britain at the forefront of world-leading research in Antarctica and the Arctic. This £200m commitment represents the UK Government‘s largest investment in polar science since the 1980s.

Explore the ship’s scientific facilities and operational capability

Exploring new frontiers

Britain has been a world leader in polar exploration and research for over a century. Today, studying these remote regions is crucial in helping us understand changes in our planet’s oceans, marine life and climate system.

The RRS James Clark Ross is nearing the end of her 25-year lifespan and the RRS Ernest Shackleton, was returned to its owners in 2019, after 20 years of polar duties for BAS.  This means a new, modern platform for Arctic and Antarctic research is needed. Operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), RRS Sir David Attenborough will be available year-round to the UK research community, including postgraduate trainees.

Discover how the RRS Sir David Attenborough will support scientists conducting vital research in the polar regions



Technical features

  • Length: 129 metres; beam: 24m;  Gross Tonnage: 15,000
  • Scientific cargo volume of approximately 900m³
  • Endurance – up to 60 days
  • Range 19,000 nautical miles at 13 knots (24 km/h) cruising speed; more than enough for a return trip from England to Rothera Research Station, or to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice!
  • Ice breaking capability – up to 1m thick at 3 knots (5.6 km/h)
  • Bow and stern thrusters for excellent dynamic positioning in challenging conditions
  • Launch and recovery of aerial and ocean robotic systems
  • Crew approx. 30
  • Accommodation for up to 60 scientists and support staff

Enhanced scientific capability

RRS Sir David Attenborough is designed to support science in extreme environments. A wide range of specialist scientific facilities, instruments and laboratories enable scientists to conduct multi-disciplinary sciences to study the ocean, seafloor, ice and atmosphere. Marine robotics and remotely operated vehicles – including the famous Boaty McBoatface – will capture data from the deep ocean and previously inaccessible locations under the ice.

Autosub pre-deployment checks onboard RRS James Clark Ross during the JR58 autosub cruise. The autonomous unmanned vehicle (AUV) Autosub-2 travels beneath sea ice carrying a variety of scientific instruments to inaccessible parts of the ocean, to make measurements of Antarctic krill distribution and abundance, and of ice thickness.Autosub pre-deployment checks onboard. The autonomous unmanned vehicle (AUV) travels beneath sea ice carrying a variety of scientific instruments to inaccessible parts of the ocean, to make measurements of Antarctic krill distribution and abundance, and of ice thickness.

From the ship, scientists can deploy, operate and control a range of remotely piloted science instruments at the same time, meaning they can gather measurements from both airborne and marine remotely operated vehicles and autonomous platforms simultaneously.

She is also the first British polar research ship to feature a moon pool – a vertical shaft (~4 x 4 m) running through the vessel, open to both the air and sea. Using the moon pool, scientific equipment can be deployed and recovered through the centre, and most stable part, of the hull. This is easier and safer than deploying equipment over the side or stern, particularly in the polar oceans’ rough seas.

The ship has a number of built-in laboratories. However, it’s also possible to ‘plug-in’ portable, containerised laboratories. This makes science on board the RRS Sir David Attenborough much more flexible and, as technologies and techniques change, the containers can be reconfigured to ensure research teams have the facilities they need to conduct world-leading science.

Operational capability

The new polar ship for Britain will operate year-round. She will spend the northern summer supporting Arctic research cruises and the austral summer in Antarctica carrying out research programmes and bringing people and supplies to BAS research stations.

Her ice-strengthened hull, designed to break through ice up to one metre thick, and ability to spend up to 60 days at sea means the RRS Sir David Attenborough can undertake extensive voyages. The ship’s operational facilities will enable her to undertake logistics work efficiently, maximising the time spent on research cruises.

Building a new polar vessel

Modern ships are constructed in ‘blocks’