RSV Aurora Australis 1989-

Sea ice surrounds Aurora Australis off the coast of Antarctica
Sea ice surrounds Aurora Australis off the coast of Antarctica (Photo: Gary Dowse)
Helicopter approaching Aurora AustralisAurora Australis at Mawson stationAurora Australis bridge deckInstruments and radar screens shine blue, green and red in the night .

Launched in 1989, the RSV Aurora Australis was purpose built for the Australian Antarctic program by P&O Polar. The ship was designed by Wartsila Marine Industries of Finland and built at the Carrington Slipways in Newcastle. The Aurora Australis is the main lifeline to Australia's Antarctic and sub-Antarctic research stations, and the central platform of our Antarctic and Southern Ocean scientific research.

The ship is named for the southern lights that can be seen in Antarctica and Tasmania. An aurora is caused when solar winds in the upper atmosphere and the Earth's magnetic field interact together, resulting in rainbow colours in the night sky. In the southern hemisphere, it is called the aurora australis.


  • Research Survey Vessel (RSV)
  • Lloyds Register Ice Class 1A Super icebreaker
  • overall length: 94.91 metres
  • overall breadth: 20.35 metres
  • capacity: 6574 tons (gross)
  • capacity: 3911 tons (dead weight)
  • 4-ton SWL gantry crane stern
  • engine: 2 medium speed diesels coupled through a reduction gearbox and hydraulic clutches driving a single controllable-pitch propeller (CPP)
  • maximum speed: 16 knots
  • cargo hold capacity: 1790 cubic metres, with deck capacity for 18 TEUS 700 ton cargo with maximum bunkers
  • cargo capacity: 600 cubic metres of general cargo plus 40 containers
  • 2 forklifts; 5- and 2-ton SWL
  • 3 helicopters housed in hangar; helideck at stern
  • 2 Gilson winches, 2 trawl winches, 2 Hiab cranes (SWL 5-ton) for marine science. Stern ramp and towed sonar winch.
  • 140 persons including: 24 crew, 116 passengers in 1, 2, 3 and 4 berth cabins.

Special features

The Aurora Australis is well equipped for marine science research with a commercial-sized trawl deck and a hydroacoustic system to help researchers study Southern Ocean organisms such as krill. It also has a general purpose wet lab for processing samples, five multi-purpose laboratories, hydrographic laboratory, fish freezer, meteorological laboratory, and a scientific work room.

Key Antarctic voyages

Ship travel in polar regions often involves challenging conditions. A sailor’s worst nightmare became reality at 2.25 am on 22 July 1998 when fire broke out in the engine room of the Aurora Australis while deep within the ice. A quick response from passengers and crew minimised the danger, and the ship made it safely back to port and on to Newcastle for repairs.

Following repairs, the Aurora Australis sailed again only to encounter more unforeseen problems with propeller damage and a lengthy besetment in the ice.

Towards the end of the season, a second fire in the engine room occurred. However, the ship returned safely to Fremantle.

Current life

With its bright orange colour, the ship is affectionately called the 'Orange Roughy' by expeditioners. Although still on charter to the Australian Antarctic Division, the Aurora Australis is due to be replaced in 2020 by a custom-built new icebreaker with an ultra-modern platform to conduct science and resupply Australia's Antarctic and sub-Antarctic stations.