(covers information from an alternate timeline)
Whereas the original Nova-class from the 2370s was limited to a maximum warp factor of warp 8 and was considered a planetary research vessel, the Rhode Island was designed for long term deep space assignments.
The Rhode Island was commanded by Captain Harry Kim, and assigned to a four-year exploration mission. In 2404, the Rhode Island defended Admiral Janeway's shuttlecraft when it came under attack by two Negh'Var warships. (VOY: "Endgame")
|USS Equinox • USS Rhode Island • Unnamed|
The Rhode Island was created by Robert Bonchune of Foundation Imaging from the existing modification of the USS Equinox. His modifications included a different bridge dome and the filling in of the gap in front of the primary hull's deflector dish. The engine nacelles and escape pods were also altered.
It was Foundation Imaging which assigned the Rhode Island its registry. (Star Trek Magazine issue 121, p. 78) The Rhode Island was named after the state of Rhode Island, as according to Larry Nemecek, the name was chosen as a joke; even though Harry Kim finally gets to command his own starship, it's still only named after the smallest state in the United States.
In Star Trek Online, the Rhode Island is the lead vessel of a variant on the Nova-class, dubbed Rhode Island-class (β) (the Science Vessel Refit in game mechanics). In the 2014 Delta Rising expansion, Harry Kim, now a captain, commands the vessel in the year 2410.