UPDATED 11.50AM: The rescue mission has moved at a glacial pace, but passengers and scientists on a ship trapped in an ice field off Antarctica are finally about to start their long trip home.
It will be welcome news for for University of Wollongong historian Ben Maddison and Illawarra scientist Professor Chris Turney who are on board the stranded ship.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) says weather conditions have improved, and once the three ships involved in the rescue are happy, the delicate operation of airlifting 52 people off the Akademik Shokalskiy can begin.
It is expected to take about five hours to free the passengers - mostly from Australia and New Zealand - who have been stranded on the ship since Christmas Eve.
Authorities on Tuesday decided to resort to the helicopter strategy after the Aurora Australis rescue icebreaker was forced to retreat in the face of freezing 30-knot winds and snow showers.
Thick ice had earlier prevented the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long and a French icebreaker from reaching the stranded crew.
AMSA spokesman John Young said the weather conditions appear to be suitable for a Thursday rescue.
‘‘The ships will commence this operation when they’re all happy that it’s ready to go,’’ Mr Young told reporters.‘‘The weather conditions appear to be suitable today.’’
He couldn’t say exactly when the rescue would begin but in a statement released about 7.30am on Thursday, AMSA said operations were likely to commence ‘‘shortly’’.
A helicopter on board the nearby Chinese Xue Long will conduct seven trips to a make-shift helipad passengers of the Akademik Shokalskiy stamped out in the ice - while singing Auld Lang Syne - on New Year’s Eve.
They will be dropped off on the Chinese ship then transferred, via barges, to the Aurora Australis rescue icebreaker.
The Aurora Australis will then travel to the Australian Antarctic Casey Base for refuelling before making its way to Hobart.AMSA said if all goes well, the passengers should reach Tasmania by mid-January.
The 22 Russian crew members, however, will stay on the ship to keep it operational until the pack ice breaks up.
‘‘When Shokalskiy is able to move she will then free herself from the pack,’’ Mr Young said.