The British Antarctic Survey project had intended to drill through 1.8 miles of ice to to a lake that has been sealed off for thousands of years. To accomplish this, they planed to drill through the ice with near-boiling water to reach the lake. Unfortunately, scientists say that they had to call off the attempt after failing to connect the main borehole with a parallel hole intended to recover the hot drilling water.
The lake is believed to have been sealed off from contact with the surface of Antarctica for as long as half a million years.
Martin Siegert, the principal project investigator from the University of Bristol, said:
"We kept trying for over 24 hours to reach that connection but we couldn't do it]. All that time we were losing fuel and water from the ice sheet surface and we got to a critical condition where our calculations showed us we simply didn't have enough fuel to continue any further down into the ice sheet to hit the top of the lake."
The team said that it was "weatherizing" the equipment while trying to determine when they might resume the project, which cost $13 million.
"It will take a season or two to get all of our equipment out of Antarctica and back to the United Kingdom, so at a minimum we're looking at three to four, maybe five years I would have thought."
The goal of the project had been to seek evidence of simple life forms existing in the extreme conditions of pressure and temperature in the sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth.
The drilling project encountered its first complications last week when the main boiler used to heat drilling water failed and a replacement part had to be flown in from the United Kingdom.