Race on to build polar research vessel
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China is making a big push to get an ice-breaker for Antarctic research built and steaming towards the South Pole within three years.
The State Oceanic Administration (SOA) signed a contract with a Finnish ship designer in Beijing on Tuesday for the vessel. It requires the blueprints to be ready in seven months and construction to be completed by 2014.
Aker Arctic, based in Helsinki, will charge more than Euro5 million (HK$47.6 million) for a preliminary design of the ship. Details, such as the layout of pipes, and electric and communication cables, were still to be worked out by Chinese designers, according to the company press release. The price was considered by some domestic ship designers to be high, but the government said it was fair because they wanted the work done quickly.
An official with the SOA's polar exploration office said China was in desperate need of a ship for its Antarctic missions, which were being conducted solely by the Xuelong research vessel at present.
Xuelong is an ice-breaking cargo ship built by the Ukraine.
'It is great for cargo but inherently unfit for future missions,' the official said.
China must have a new ship to compete with developed countries such as the United States in the Antarctic, he said.
'When finished, it will go to the Antarctic with Xuelong. With two ships, our presence at the South Pole can be significantly increased. We can carry more people, more materials and more equipment to our permanent stations.'
With a length of 120 metres, maximum breadth of 22 metres and draught of 8.5 metres, the ship will carry a crew of 90 and be able to break through 1.5 metres of level ice at between two and three knots.
The vessel will incorporate advanced scientific equipment, according to Xinhua. It will have a laboratory with nearly 600 square metres of floor space and a large outdoor platform for experiments, observation and sampling. The biggest difference from Xuelong is that the ship will be able to break the ice by moving either forwards or backwards. However, China has no plan to challenge Russia's dominance at the other pole in the Arctic. Proposals to build a nuclear-powered ice-breaker were rejected by the government because it would upset Moscow, the official said.
A nuclear-powered ice-breaker is needed for winter trips to the Arctic because the thickness of the ice increases to more than five metres and requires tremendous power to break.
China would never build such a vessel or conduct such a voyage, because the 'Arctic is Russia's turf', he said.
Instead, the new ice-breaker, which has not been named, will mostly carry out ice-breaking expeditions to the Antarctic, where the ice is only about a metre thick.
Some scientists have high hopes for the new vessel.
Zhao Jun , assistant professor with SOA's Second Institute of Oceanography, who went to the Antarctic on the Xuelong last year, said that that vessel was excellent, but scientists were hoping for a ship designed exclusively for research.
'The room for laboratories on board Xuelong is relatively small. Some large research equipment can't fit in, and some sensors cannot be mounted on its hull,' the researcher said. 'I hope the new ship can give us more room to conduct experiments and make it more convenient to conduct observations and obtain samples.'
After the government released the bidding offer, many designers replied but none were from China, according to the official.
'I am not surprised because China has never designed and built an ice-breaker. It will take too much time to start everything from scratch. We can't afford the loss of time in a race so tight,' he said.
The ship will be built entirely by a Chinese shipyard.
China has the world's largest ship-building capacity and the ice-breaker could be completed in a matter of months, 'probably faster than it takes to design because we have many master shipbuilders', he said.
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