The Research Vessel SONNE

Federal Ministry of Education and Research

A powerhouse for German deep-sea research

Welcome aboard...
...the research vessel SONNE. Together with Captain Lutz Mallon, we invite you on an expedition to the fascinating world of the deep sea, where black smokers and unknown life forms, mineral deposits and new climate information are the focus of our research. We work on these topics each day on board the SONNE, the flagship of German deep-sea research. Let's cast off!

Lutz Mallon, captain of the research vessel SONNE

The sea is calling
Our journey takes us to the ocean, the birthplace of life on the Earth. The first organisms emerged here 3.5 billion years ago. The world's oceans are around 3,800 metres deep on the average, and cover approximately 71% of the Earth's surface. They provide food and oxygen, and store heat and greenhouse gases. However, the ocean depths remain largely unexplored.
Why deep-sea research?
Here are three reasons for carrying out an expedition with the research vessel SONNE!
1. Exotic life
The deep sea is the largest habitat on our planet, and is home to many exotic life forms. They brave the darkness, pressure, and cold, survive on very little food, and have developed special methods for producing energy.
2. Smoking chimneys
We know more about the back side of the moon than about what makes up the deep sea. So there's still a lot to discover: smoking chimneys and thermal vents, mountain ranges longer than the Rockies, and ocean trenches so deep that that the Earth’s tallest mountain would disappear within them.
3. Precious metals
Mineral resources, such as these manganese nodules, lie deep on the beds of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In addition to manganese and iron, they also contain precious metals such as copper, cobalt, nickel, and zinc. Because of the serious risk to the environment, concrete plans to mine these raw materials have not yet been realized. Intensive research is being carried out on this topic, however.
From the blueprints to the christening
Construction of the new research vessel SONNE

A research vessel designed from the bottom up
When the German Federal Ministry of Research commissioned the Meyer shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, to build the SONNE in August 2011, scientists had a long list of quality demands. These included eco-friendliness, reduced vibration, and abundant space.

The shipbuilders worked in close collaboration with the scientists, as well as experts from the German Research Fleet Coordination Centre and the shipping company, to develop sophisticated designs.

The vessel measures 116 metres from bow to stern, and is 20.6 metres wide by 42.4 metres tall. It weighs 6,844.8 tonnes without cargo, and has a maximum speed of 15 knots (27.78 km/h).

Searching for the perfect hull
The shipbuilders worked with a special focus on the design of the hull, as you can see here in a test of a hull model at the Hamburg Shipbuilding Research Institute basin. The SONNE's hull was designed to prevent bubbles from the water surface passing under the vessel and disrupting the echo sounders' reception.

On December 4, 2012, construction work began at the Meyer shipyard in Papenburg. This video shows how the research vessel took shape step by step over the next 20 months.

Test voyage in the North Sea
The SONNE's maiden test voyage took place in early summer of 2014 in the North Sea. The research team and crew tested the design of the huge otter boards, among other things. These are used by scientists from the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources to survey the ocean floor in 3D. After its first voyage, the researchers were full of praise for the vessel.
Blue Angel
The SONNE was awarded the "Blue Angel" certification for its efficient, energy-saving, and eco-friendly operation. The vessel only uses low-sulphur diesel fuel. Modern catalysts reduce nitrogen oxides to minimize the environmental impact.
Christened by the Chancellor
On July 11 2014, at the headquarters of the Neptun Werft shipbuilders in Rostock, Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel christened the €124.4 million deep-sea research vessel the "SONNE".
A vessel in a class of its own
Modern technology makes the SONNE a scientist's dream
Always steering the right course
The SONNE is equipped with modern navigation systems and controls, so the captain and his navigators always know exactly where the ship is to the nearest metre. Calls can be made to the German Research Fleet Coordination Centre, the shipping company, and to the scientists on land via the very latest in VSAT satellite communication systems.

Precision-perfect deployment
The vessel cannot be allowed to drift off station when scientists have launched their research devices into the water, regardless of the wind and current conditions.

The SONNE achieves this requirement by employing a dynamic positioning system. Two large propellers, a rotating pump jet beneath the hull, and extendable bow and stern thrusters work in concert to allow the vessel to stay precisely on station for 48 hours.

The calm in the storm
When the wind picks up, the vessel remains steady in the sea thanks to the system from Intering GmbH: a U-shaped tank fitted across the stern of the vessel and filled with 250 cubic metres of water. When the SONNE begins to sway, water is pumped from one side of the tank to the other, subduing the rolling motion of the vessel.
Prepared for emergencies
Safety was a top priority in the design of the SONNE. One example of this is the ‘safe return to port’ concept, whereby the control, supply, and navigation technologies are distributed throughout the vessel. If an area of the vessel is burned out, the crew can safely steer it to the next port from an intact area. This can also be done from the captain's laptop.
Silent running
The SONNE is also setting new standards in the machine room. All the power units are elastically mounted so that they transmit a minimum of vibrations to the hull, even when the diesel engines are running at full speed. The SONNE therefore runs very quietly and with reduced vibrations, which benefits both the passengers on board and life in the ocean.

Strong cranes for heavyweight deep-sea submersibles
The SONNE has seven cranes, two sliding-beam cranes, and an A-frame at the stern, which alone has a lifting capacity of up to 30 tonnes.

Using this powerful lifting technology, the scientists can safely launch and retrieve the 3.5 tonne heavyweight KIEL 6000 submersible vehicle, for example.

12 kilometres of steel cable
As a one-of-a-kind German research vessel, the SONNE has two winches with 12 kilometres of steel cable each. These can even reach down into the great depths of the deep-sea trenches. The main windlass is fitted with a mechanism that compensates for the vessel's rocking motion. Constant tension ensures that the cable and research devices always operate at the desired distance from the ocean floor.
New maps of the ocean floor
The SONNE's modern echo sounders provide researchers with completely new insights into the deep sea. Even at a water depth of 4,200 metres, they provide such high-quality images that it is possible to recognize ground structures as small as 30 metres in size. The water column data is detailed enough, for example, to map methane leaks on the ocean floor.
Research on board
A research vessel for all disciplines
For weeks on the high seas
The SONNE provides living and working spaces for 40 scientists and technical personnel, while also accommodating up to 32 crew members. Researchers typically spend five weeks at sea. There are enough supplies on board to last over seven weeks in case of emergency or for longer expeditions.

Seasickness on board the RV SONNE

A temporary home away from home
Each researcher has his/her own cabin on board the SONNE. In this video, you can see what the cabins look like and where scientists can exercise on board during long expeditions.

Hard work requires good food
After the command bridge, the ship's kitchen is one of the most important places on board. When your work is long and intensive, good quality and varied meals are a high priority.

Large lab space below deck
To examine samples from the deep sea right away, scientists on board the SONNE have access to work spaces comprising a total of 600 square metres. These areas include 17 labs, around half of which can be cooled to a specific temperature if required.

Voyages in the Pacific Ocean
The first expeditions of the SONNE deep-sea research vessel were to the exciting underwater regions of the Pacific...

...undersea volcanoes off New Zealand, earthquake hotspots off the coast of Chile, and Ritter Island in the waters of Papua New Guinea.

The SONNE's deployment off Ritter Island

Technologies for the deep sea
The SONNE has a very large working deck.

This means that scientists can work with several large pieces of equipment at the same time, including the MARUM sea-floor drilling rig – the MeBo 200 – seen here.

Hands and eyes on the ocean floor
The water pressure at a depth of around 100 metres is too great for humans to dive to with flippers and SCUBA tanks. Instead, we send down submersible vehicles such as the KIEL 6000. Equipped with headlamps, manipulator arms, cameras, and measuring devices, they explore the deep sea. The robots transfer the pictures they take directly to the research vessel...

...where they are followed live by biologists, geologists, or oceanographers on large monitors. If the scientists discover any interesting material or unknown creatures on the sea floor, they use the robotic arms to take a sample, which is later examined in one of the ship's labs.

It's busy on deck!
This video by GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel shows the different research devices used on SONNE expeditions.

New discoveries from the deep sea
Selected research breakthroughs from the decks of the new SONNE
Record for deepest sample taken
On the SONNE's first expedition, biologists were able to sample the ocean floor in the Puerto Rico Trench using an epibenthic sled. Because the trench is 8,350 metres deep, the sled's towing cable had to be unwound to a length of 11,000 metres. No other scientific team had ever successfully taken this type of sample from such a depth before.
Who or what lives on the ocean floor?
One well-known deep-sea inhabitant is the sea cucumber, like this one found in the Peru Basin. But life on the ocean floor is so diverse that biologists discover new types on almost every dive.

Human actions have a long-lasting effect
On SONNE expedition SO242-2, researchers examined deep-sea life forms in a region of the Peru Basin where the ocean floor had been ploughed up 26 years before. Even after almost three decades, the populations of entire species still hadn't recovered from this human intervention.

Data from the deepest point in the world

In November 2016, scientists were able to anchor a 7,000-metre chain with measuring instruments...

...at the deepest point on Earth.

Two years' worth of data on water temperatures and flow velocities are currently being collected here,...

...in the challenging depths of the Mariana Trench.

Seawater flows through the ocean crust
About 1.5% of the oceans' water constantly circulates through the upper layers of the ocean floor, where underwater mountains serve as entry and exit points.

This hypothesis was confirmed by geochemists after a SONNE expedition to the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific. Accordingly, seawater seeps through the crustal folds in the rocky subsoil and provides the bottom layers with oxygen.

Hydrothermal vents and black smokers...
...were discovered by scientists on SONNE expedition SO253, which took them to the Kermadec volcanic arc off of the northern coast of New Zealand. The Pacific and Australian continental plates meet here beneath the sea, resulting in the formation of numerous undersea volcanoes that release water at the ocean floor with a temperature of 300°C.

Better understanding earthquakes
The risk of subsurface quakes is not the same everywhere on the Earth because earthquakes originate predominantly at the boundaries of the lithospheric plates. Where these plates scrape along against each other, snagging on or being forced below one another, tension builds up within the Earth's crust. The tension is released through abrupt motions - the earthquakes. One of the most intense regions for earthquakes is off the western coast of South America, where the Nazca Plate abuts against the South American Plate.

If you want to understand earthquakes, you need to examine them close to their source
Geophysicist Professor Heidrun Koop explaining a new system for measuring movement of the Earth’s plates (GeoSEA-Array), which she and her team installed in the deep sea off the coast of Chile on SONNE expedition SO244.

Manganese nodules – spawning grounds for deep-sea octopuses
Manganese nodules at the bottom of the Pacific are important spawning grounds for deep-sea octopuses. The creatures lay their eggs on sponges that only grow on manganese nodules. This new discovery highlights the need for thorough research into the ecological effects of potential deep-sea mining.
A deep-sea plateau as a focus of research
This ocean-floor depiction shows a newly discovered undersea mountain up to 2,000 metres in height (in red) on the Chatham Rise, a large undersea elevation in the South Pacific surveyed by geologists on SONNE expedition SO246. Their goal was to understand how the plateau was formed over many millions of years.
Who is actually allowed to research on the SONNE?
Expedition spaces are very much in demand!
The German research fleet, with eight ocean-going vessels, is one of the largest worldwide. However, there are more scientists who want to go on expeditions than there are bunks on the vessels. Expedition leaders therefore have to submit applications for vessel time, which are then assessed and selected by a scientific commission.

Areas of operation of the German research fleets

More information

You can find more information on the German research fleet and the objectives of German ocean research in the following internet portals:

German Federal Ministry for Education and Research

German Research Vessels Portal

Project Management Jülich

German Marine Research Consortium

German Research Fleet Coordination Centre

Federal Ministry of Research and Education
Credits: Story

Text: Sina Löschke
Edited by: Albert Gerdes and Florian Druckenthaner

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.