Russia has launched its newest Arctic research vessel — called the North Pole. Part of Project 00903, the vessel is described as an "ice-resistant self-propelled platform" designed to drift through the frozen waters of the far north, to carry out sonar, geological, geophysical, and oceanographic surveys, according to an initial report from a Russian newspaper.
And yet we can't help wonder, despite the North Pole's first-of-its-kind status as a post-global-warming arctic research vessel, whether its unfriendly face would make Baby Yoda cry.
Russian long-endurance arctic research ship is ugly
The Russian vessel has a uniquely egg-shaped hull, composed of specialized high-durability steel to overcome light ice — which it surges through at a speed of roughly 10 knots. The ship isn't an icebreaker though, as its reinforced hull is designed to push through ice, rather than plow like arctic ships of old.
In general, the North Pole is optimized for autonomy and endurance, The Drive reports.
Arctic vessel part of larger project 'Roshydromet'
The Russian ship launched on Dec. 18 from the Admiralty Shipyard in Saint Petersburg, courtesy of Russia's United Shipbuilding Corporation — nearly two years following the start of the ship's construction.
The vessel was built for the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring — also called Roshydromet — at an alleged cost of $100 million. It's part of a joint project between Roshydromet and the Russian nation's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.
This big ship measures 276 ft (84 m) long and 74 ft (22.5 m) wide, with a total displacement of 10,225 tons — making the North Pole the first of its kind to be based in the far Arctic on a permanent basis.
Global climate change made the old ice stations impractical
In the past as Russia and earlier as the Soviet Union, the largest country on Earth used drifting ice stations to support Arctic research efforts. These were built on ice packs or glacier fragments. Since 1937, 40 expeditions have happened — typically between September and October.
In May 1962, the U.S. intelligence community investigated an abandoned Soviet research station in the far north extremes of the Arctic.
However, the advent of global climate change has made these types of stations impractical since the early 2000s, since solid ice has become an increasingly rare find in the arctic.
Russia's new arctic vessel can operate for two years without supplies
The last Russian ice station to serve for an extended period was North Pole-40, put into place in October 2012 — but this was evacuated in May 2013 when the ice floe started to break up and melt. Scientists at the scene were later rescued, thanks to a nuclear-powered icebreaker. A later attempt to place an ice station in 2015 was abandoned after a mere four months.
Russia's latest polar vessel represents a pivot to the "ice-resistant self-propelled platform," also called Project 00903, which will be capable of journeying to the Arctic region without the aid of external power, let alone an icebreaker, before it starts its "autonomous" mission.
In the case of the North Pole, autonomy refers to the vessel's capability to work independently of resupply mission for extended periods — which allows researchers to study the Arctic region for up to two years per trip before the need to return becomes inevitable if more supplies aren't on the way.
Russia's ship may earmark new energy resources amid global climate change
Its incredibly long missions mean the North Pole will likely receive additional supplies via passing icebreakers or via air — and the ship even has space for a permanently embarked Mi-8 helicopter. Customized specifically for Arctic operations, the Mi-8AMTSh-VA helicopter might be crucial in critical situations.
a cool Russian arctic research ship pic.twitter.com/4YdKMcWucs— Taepodong (@stoa1984) December 21, 2020
The vessel's helipad could also support variants of the Mi-38 — including a high-speed rotary-wing aircraft designed for rescue missions, reports The Drive.
Russia's North Pole vessel will operate as a scientific research ship, but the strategic significance is hard to miss. Retreating ice caps may have made earlier ice stations less than feasible, but the opening sea will offer vast amounts of new resources for energy wealth in the region — redefining the north pole as a region of great power rivalries.