The Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis is closing in on the icebound Russian ship in the Antarctic in a fresh rescue bid.

The passengers aboard Akademik Shokalskiy, the vessel stuck in ice off the coast of Antarctica for the past five days could even be airlifted if rescue measures fail in the next 48 hours.

A Chinese helicopter from the country's icebreaker, Snow Dragon, was earlier sent to conduct a survey around Shokalskiy to look for nearby open waters. The helicopter is planned to be employed for the airlift.

The Australian vessel is the last ship in the region that can possibly render any assistance.

"What we're depending on is the extra grunt of the Aurora Australis. It's a more traditional icebreaker hull, which is like a bathtub with a big engine inside - it can push over the ice and lay down on top and work its way like that," said Greg Mortimer of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition's (AAE).

Among the 50-odd people aboard the stricken ship are scientists, tourists and crew members.

French and Chinese icebreakers could not reach the ship as it has been trapped in dense packs of ice. Shokalskiy, however, has enough food and emergency supplies and is not thought to be in immediate danger.

According to reports, the chances of success of the Australian vessel's mission will not be known until the final moments as the icebreaker has to cut through thick ice.

"We're always making contingency plans. That would happen by the Chinese vessel sending their helicopter to us, us preparing a helipad on the ice next to the ship and flying passengers from that ice onto the other vessels. Then taking them home via the Ross Sea or Casey base by ship," said Mortimer.