British probe of ancient lake under Antarctica shut down

It was a scientific breakthrough when a Russian team broke through some 12,365 ft. of ice to tap Lake Vostok, buried under Antarctica for 14 million years last February. The U.S. and Great Britain soon followed with efforts to tap into similar buried lakes in the hopes of finding ancient forms of life. Sadly on Christmas Day, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) announced the shuttering of their operations due to technical problems.

The BAS had positioned their attempt over Lake Ellsworth, sitting two miles underneath the Antarctic ice. The ambitious location was very specific choice as it is believed this lake may hold older microbes — critical for learning more about our Earth's development — and what might be found in hostile environments on icy planets.

The plan was to bore through the ice with a hot-water drill and when reaching the destination, remote control probes would collect samples of the (hopefully) microbe-rich water. Unfortunately, after descending about ten percent of the way down, the drill malfunctioned spilling hot water into the porous ice.

Attempts were made over a 20-hour period to connect two bore holes that would alleviate the hot water loss and reduction of pressure that was disabling the drill. Additionally, a critical part of the electronics behing the drill part apparently also malfunctioned. All of the extra time and trouble-shooting used up critical fuel supplies and racked up roughly $11 million, eventually causing the BAS to table their plans for the near future.

The BAS team has put a brave face on according to Reuters, with team leader Prof. Martin Siegert to write on the BAS website:

"By the end, the equipment was working well, and much of it has now been fully field-tested."

And while it opens up the possibility for the U.S. and Russia to jump in, the BAS have approached the situation pragmatically, with a BAS spokewoman telling Reuters:

"It's very possible that either the U.S. or Russia may take the lead but I think the one thing we've learned here is that anything can go wrong. We've never depicted this as a race. All sub-glacial lakes would give different information."

The planet's sub-glacial lakes are possibly the most hostile environments on Earth and if fully explored for signs of life they could be a treasure trove, so different teams forge on in spite of the clear challenges.

To date, the Russians broke through Lake Vostok early in 2012. Some scientists are crying foul over their expedition, believing their samples may have been contaminated by drilling fluids. So the Russians have an interest in continuing to drill.

As for the U.S., earlier in December, a NASA led research team, dug a mere 65 feet below the surface, and successfully uncovered microbes in Lake Vida. The team is also expected to start work drilling Lake Whillians in Antarctica early this coming year.

But attention keeps coming back to Lake Ellsworth and whether a team might pick up work there. Because of the depth there is the belief researchers would have found the most truly isolated and biologically unique microbes. The BAS team was also hoping if they could find and date sea shells found in the water they could better understand the formation of the ice sheet and climactic conditions in which the lakes were formed.

In addition to learning more about our own planet the other idea is that the secrets Ellsworth may hold could give us a giant heads up as to what life we might find in the similarly harsh environments of a Europa or Enceladus.

The BAS is planning a regroup and investigation of what has gone wrong with their attempt, but even this prospect will not be easy — or timely. Professor Siegert reported to the BBC that it could take a season to get existing equipment out of Antarctica and back to the UK, then there is the review of their equipment, future planning and getting the equipment back up to the frigid location.

Siegert estimates three to five years before another BAS attempt, so at this point the deep secrets of Lake Ellsworth are still waiting for the right team, with the right equipment to expose its contents to the world.

Reuters, BBC, via PopSci

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