For generations of expeditioners the story of Antarctic research has been set against the orange backdrop of the Aurora Australis.

The Gillard Government is taking initial steps towards a new Antarctic icebreaker to replace the ageing Research and Supply Vessel Aurora Australis.

The beginning of the process will mark the first step in what will dominate the whole of the next generation of expeditioners.

The Australian Government, acting through the Australian Antarctic Division, has today invited interested parties to submit proposals for the Design, Build and long-term Operation and Maintenance of a new multi-purpose icebreaker.

The Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new icebreaker has been released on the AusTender website.

Environment Minister Tony Burke said the bright orange icon of Australia’s modern Antarctic program Aurora Australis had been supporting Australia’s Antarctic program for more than 23 years and is nearing the end of its useful life.

“Our Antarctic explorers stand on the shoulders of the great explorers and scientists and they stand on the decks of the great vessels which have made the journey through the ice,” Mr Burke said.

“Australia is committed to remaining a leading Antarctic nation. The icebreaker plays an essential role in resupplying our Antarctic stations and supporting critical Antarctic and Southern Ocean research. Ensuring Australia has future access to an icebreaker appropriate for the challenging conditions and future requirements is a top priority.”

Mr Burke said the Government had allocated $1.7 million in 2012–13 for the development of a detailed business case for a new Antarctic shipping capability, including essential associated infrastructure and support.

“Today we have invited industry to come forward with cost-effective proposals for a new ship to inform the next stage of the Government’s consideration, but no decisions have yet been made on proceeding with further stages of the procurement,” Mr Burke said.

“The Australian Antarctic Territory covers 42 per cent of the continent. We must look at how we sustain our strong Antarctic presence into the future — modern sophisticated transport is critical to that.”

Mr Burke said Australia’s Antarctic research program is critical to our understanding of how the planet works, including the impacts of climate change on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean and as a result, the global climate system.

“Our scientific research also helps us conserve Antarctica’s unique wildlife and informs our management of Southern Ocean fisheries to protect marine biodiversity for the future.

“As an original signatory of the Antarctic Treaty and one of the principal proponents of its Protocol on Environment Protection, Australia is a strong and long standing supporter of the Antarctic Treaty system and works through it to advance Australia’s interests.

“To continue to lead a world class Antarctic research program into the future and to maintain our position as a leader within the Antarctic Treaty System requires modern, sophisticated research and transport systems. An icebreaker is, and will remain, the backbone of Australia’s support to our Antarctic stations and expeditioners.”

The complex process of replacing the Aurora Australis will take some time. It is expected at this stage to be at least five years before a new ship is operating.