A £7million project to drill beneath two miles of Antarctic ice in search of undiscovered life hanged in the balance today – after a major equipment failure.
The malfunction could mean that the project, which took 16 years to plan, would have to be abandoned, potentially wasting millions of pounds of tax payers money.
The 12 scientists, from the British Antarctic Survey, are now in a race against time to complete the mission before the borehole reseals as they only have enough fuel or one attempt.
Expedition leader Chris Hill confirmed they were past the point of no return and feared the water would re-freeze in the pipes and borehole, halting the programme.
He said: “We are now committed, having gone past the point of no return.
“If anything stops working now, water could freeze in the pipes and the whole programme could come to a halt.”
Prof Martin Siegert, chief scientist of the project from the University of Bristol, added: “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, which has never been attempted by anyone else, will see the scientists drill more than two miles to reach the ice-locked Lake Ellsworth where, in the remote environment, they believe life may exist.
The liquid water lake, which is kept warm by heat from geothermal springs, has been hidden from the outside world for more than half a million years.
In the £7 million project the team planned to fire 90 degrees celsius water at the ice to drill more than two miles beneath the surface.
But when they tried to reach the lake the controller circuit on the boiler’s primary burner failed.
A secondary burner was fitted and the team worked around the clock to shovel snow to feed the hot-water drill.
However just days later that burner also failed leaving the BAS team with no choice but to wait for another replacement as their bore hole, and equipment, slowly began to freeze shut.
In a statement released by the team they said: “During the weekend a technical issue halted hot water drilling at subglacial Lake Ellsworth.
“It is too early at this stage to say what this means for the project.
“The engineering team is currently investigating the issue.”
Chris, who spoke to BBC News, said that the boiler was currently running on a back-up electric element which is not powerful enough to heat the water to the temperature needed for drilling.
He said: “We are also vulnerable if this element fails, we will have to fully drain down the system – and start over from scratch – this would be a big deal.”
No team has ever attempted to drill so deeply through the polar ice sheet before and it is thought that the project may revolutionise the understanding of the resilience of life.
If the team can prove the microbes exist it would have implications for astrophysicists’ predictions for where life could exist on other planets.
Ellsworth forms one of more than 400 sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica and is equivalent in size to the size of Lake Windermere, Cumbria, measuring 7.5 miles long by 1.8 miles wide.