Lake Ellsworth: Drilling effort runs into trouble

700_b35f6ce1ceef3004e8cdeaaa65ed9649A British attempt to search for life in an ancient lake beneath the Antarctic ice-sheet has run into trouble.

The team has reported “a serious problem” with the main boiler used to heat the water that powers a drill.

Work was halted on Saturday in what could prove to be a major blow to the project to investigate sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth.

The aim is to use 90C water to blast a hole through the two-mile-thick ice-sheet to reach the lake waters below.

The research goal is to gather samples of water and sediment to search for signs of life and clues about the region’s climatic history.

Prof Martin Siegert, chief scientist of the project, said: “The technical difficulties are something that are not unfamiliar in Antarctica – it’s a hostile environment and very difficult to do things smoothly.

“The good news is that we found the fault relatively early on in our deployment system and so we have quite a lot of fuel that is left remaining. If we didn’t have that of course we wouldn’t be able to continue any further.

The project relies on the successful operation of the hot-water drill which in turn depends on the boiler.

Last Thursday the team reported that a key circuit on the boiler – controlling the primary burner – had failed to start.

A back-up burner was fitted which ran successfully for 4-5 days – enough to melt the water needed to start drilling.

The first task was to melt a cavity 300m below the ice to act as a water store to help balance water pressure once the main drilling to the lake started.

In a statement released this morning, the team announced: “Unfortunately, the burner failed at approximately 3pm local time on Saturday.”

A replacement component has been ordered and is expected to reach the team in a few days’ time.

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