An exploration ship left Japan Wednesday for the South Pole on its last Antarctic mission, as the aging icebreaker will retire after it returns to Japan next spring.
The 11,600-ton "Shirase" will carry expedition members, who will be flying to Australia first, to Japan's Showa Base in Antarctica in mid-December, and will leave there in mid-February before returning to Japan mid-April, Kyodo News said.
The Shirase, Japan's third-generation icebreaker after the Soya and the Fuji, has carried a total of around 4,000 people to Antarctica since it was first used in 1983. The ship has rescued stranded Australian ships during its service, local media said.
The icebreaker, with a capability to move through up to 1.5 meters of ice, will be decommissioned after the trip, as the vessel's body and equipment are aging after years of voyages.
As the Shirase is being retired, Japan's 50th expedition to the Antarctica next year will be conducted by a chartered Australian trip, the Daily Yomiuri said Wednesday. Japan is now constructing Shirase's successor, the New Shirase, which is scheduled to be ready in May 2009.
Since the launch of its first expedition team in 1956, Japan has dispatched researchers to the Antarctica almost every year.