The Polar Star is the U.S. Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar icebreaker.
The Polar Star is the U.S. Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar icebreaker.Press Release

American vessel Polar Star is the latest icebreaker that is on its way to Antarctica, tasked with the rescue of two ships stranded in thick ice.

MV Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian science expedition ship, has been stuck in dense ice for more than a week, while Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) -which went for Shokalskiy's aid - also found itself trapped in the ice, after it sent a helicopter on board to successfully rescue 52 passengers from the Russian ship.

Now, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the Chinese and Russian governments have requested the help of Polar Star, one of the largest icebreakers, which belongs to the US Coast Guard, in order to try and help pull the two stranded ships to open waters.

The Polar Star was heading towards the area anyway, after having left its home port of Seattle on 3 December. It was on a mission to clear a shipping channel to resupply and refuel the US Antarctic Program's McMurdo Station on Ross Island.

The US vessel, which is currently in Sydney, will cut short its visit there and would leave on Sunday for the seven-day voyage to the Commonwealth Bay where the two ships are stranded, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority revealed.

The Polar Star is helping the Russian and Chinese governments due to "sufficient concern that the vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice," the US Coast Guard said in a statement on Saturday.

"The U.S. Coast Guard stands ready to respond to Australia's request," said Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commander of Coast Guard Pacific Area. "Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels."

"We are always ready and duty bound to render assistance in one of the most remote and harsh environments on the face of the lobe," he added. 

Xueying 12, the helicopter on board the Snow Dragon, had successfully evacuated all 52 passengers stranded on Shokalskiy on Thursday. The latter had been left paralyzed in dense ice since Christmas eve.

However, after the helicopter relocated all the passengers to Australian ship Aurora Australis, the Chinese vessel itself got stranded, leading to another round of rescue efforts.

Aurora Australis, with the tourists and scientists from the research vessel, is now on its way back to Casey Station in the Windmill Island, located just outside the Antarctic Circle.