It’s four degrees and misty on the banks of Australia’s deepest lake, and a group of scientists is intently watching a submarine-like robot being launched into the icy depths.
Lake St Clair’s conditions are appropriate, because the next time the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) heads out it will be in some of the coldest, darkest and deepest parts of the planet.
This is the final dress rehearsal for the $5 million AUV before it explores uncharted parts of the east Antarctic environment, providing scientists with critical information on ice shelves and their impacts on global climate.
Erica Spain, a student at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, has been working on the AUV for 18 months as part of the Antarctic Gateway Partnership and will make her first trip to Antarctica this summer.
“It’s beginning to feel real. It will be a dream come true.”
Ms Spain said while the AUV’s first mission would mainly test its capabilities, she hoped to map glacial structures under the ice.
“AUVs can reach under ice shelves which ships can’t do,” she said.
Ben Galton-Fenzi from the Australian Antarctic Division said the AUV would collect data that would inform sea level projections for the next 100 to 200 years.
“We hope it’s going to collect some of the initial observations we need to map out the ocean state and how that connects with the ice sheet,” he said.
The information will be used to assess how ice shelves in the region contribute to sea levels.
“We know very little about them, if nothing at all,” Dr Galton-Fenzi said.
“The AUV will be a critical piece of kit to get in there and map it out and tell us what’s happening.”
It will be the first time an AUV of this type has been deployed in east Antarctica.
“It’s really exciting for us because there’s large regions we just don’t understand,” Dr Galton-Fenzi said.
Ben Galton-Fenzi, Konrad Zurcher and Erica Spain conduct final checks on the AUV. (ABC Hobart: Georgie Burgess)
The cold depths of Lake St Clair will pale in comparison to the environments the AUV will encounter in Antarctica, he said.
“It’s an incredibly harsh environment, particularly the environment underneath the ice shelves.
“If you want to go anywhere else in the solar system that’s even comparable, you’re talking about the icy moons of Jupiter.
“The AUV is going to be put under some pretty extreme conditions.”
One-of-a-kind vehicle can dive 5,000 metres
Designed in Canada, the AUV is state of the art and unique in the Southern Hemisphere.
At more than six metres long, it weighs two tonnes and is capable of reaching depths five kilometres below the surface.
It is powered by lithium batteries and can travel for 150 kilometres or 24 hours without needing to be recharged.
The AUV will be sent into some of the harshest conditions in the world. (ABC Hobart: Georgie Burgess)
During the test run, AUV facility manager Peter King controlled it by laptop from a chase boat.
“When the AUV is at the surface, we have a wi-fi radio link to it,” Mr King said.
“It allows me to pilot it, give it speed and commands and monitor its depth and position.
“I can plan a mission and send it to the vehicle so when I dive it has its instructions it will follow autonomously.”
The AUV’s first Antarctic mission will take place in January.