An expedition has been launched to help solve the mysteries of Zealandia, an underwater continent to the east of Australia.

The drill ship JOIDES Resolution is visiting Townsville today before a two-month expedition that is part of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP).

The expedition led by The Australian National University will also look at the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is a hotspot for volcanoes and earthquakes.

Professor Neville Exon from ANU says the expedition will help better understand the major changes in the global tectonic configuration that started about 53 million years ago as the Ring of Fire came into existence.

Zealandia, including today's Lord Howe Rise, was largely part of Australia until 75 million years ago, when it started to break away and move to the northeast.

That movement halted 53 million years ago.

Zealandia covers 5 million square kilometres, and extends from south of New Zealand northward to New Caledonia and west to the Kenn Plateau off Rockhampton.

The drill ship will collect 5 kilometres of sediment to discover how a region hundreds of kilometres east of Australia has behaved during the past 53 million years.

"The continental crust of Zealandia was thinned by stretching before it separated from Australia so that it lies lower than Australia," says New Zealand co-chief scientist, Professor Rupert Sutherland.

"Zealandia's continental crust is thicker than the surrounding oceanic crust, and so it lies higher than that."

Map of Zealandia. Image: ANU

The drill ship can gather more than a kilometre of continuous cores of sediment or rock. The ship is 143 metres long with a drill tower 61 metres high, and carries a crew of 50 in addition to 55 scientists and technicians.

The ship is due in Hobart at the end of September.

The Australian and New Zealand consortium is made up of 16 universities and four government agencies. Australia is funded by the Australian Research Council and 15 member research organisations.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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