The icebreaker Shirase returned home Wednesday, about five months after leaving Tokyo to carry Japan’s 46th Antarctic expedition team.

Members of the expedition team were welcomed by more than 100 family members when the 11,600-ton exploration ship docked at Tokyo’s Harumi wharf.

The Shirase left Tokyo in November and picked up 55 members of the team in Australia en route to Japan’s Antarctic expedition installation, Showa Base, where they arrived in December.

They studied the ecology of penguins and took aerial measurements.

The ship, which went into service in 1983, will come to the end of its service life in fiscal 2007. A replacement ship will become available only in fiscal 2010 due to financial restraints.

There are concerns that Japan might not be able to operate an Antarctic exploration ship in fiscal 2008 and 2009.

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