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Boiler delays Antarctic project

A British attempt to search for life in an ancient lake beneath the Antarctic ice-sheet has run into trouble, the BBC reported.

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.

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 waters beneath the ice may have been isolated for up to half a million years

The first task was to melt a cavity 300 m 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.

They will now have to wait for a replacement circuit

A major concern is that the system was designed to be operated on one attempt – to heat the water and melt open the bore-hole without pause to avoid the risk of ice forming inside the drill-pipe.

However sources at the British Antarctic Survey say there is no issue of any water having frozen in the pipes. They say the system is still “ticking over” with warm water.

In temperatures as low as minus 30 deg C, and in a region notorious for its winds and remoteness, any technical problems of this scale are a huge challenge.

The team always recognized that the project involved high risks – with sophisticated technology in a hostile environment.

It is unlikely that the team will resume drilling before Friday 21 December.

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