Antarctic drilling project hits major problem

An ambitious attempt to drill deep into an Antarctic lake buried by two miles of ice has run into major difficulties.

The British Antarctic Survey says that over the weekend, there was a serious problem with the main boiler that is used to generate the hot water required for drilling down to the lake.

The primary burner controller circuit had already failed upon start up – and, while the secondary burner ran successfully for four or five days, it too failed on Saturday afternoon.It had, though, already been able to melt enough water to start the drilling.

“The replacement component is likely to be with the deep field team in a few days’ time. In the meantime the engineering team is in contact with the manufacturers of the units who are helping them to determine the cause of the malfunction,” says the team.

“Both units demonstrated the same problem. When the replacement circuit arrives the engineers will work with the manufacturer to go through the set up procedure. The team is hopeful that this will solve the problem.”

If this doesn’t work out, the team says it may be possible to bypass the circuit and manually drive the burner. Either way, it’s unlikely that drilling can start up again before Friday.

Lake Elsworth has been cut off from the rest of the world for up to half a million years. Scientists are keen to find out whether it harbors microbial life forms.

“Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments,” said Dr David Pearce, science coordinator at BAS, when the expedition set off in Oxctober.