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Scientists end search for life in underground Antarctic lake

An international team of scientists have reportedly called off a research mission aimed at determining whether life exists in an underground lake in Antarctica.

Researchers working on the project cited a number of setbacks, including an attempt to create their first bore hole. The British Antarctic Survey project had intended to drill through the ice using near-boiling water to reach the lake, which they believed to have been sealed off from contact with the surface for as much as half a million years.

“Our Christmas day was pretty bleak,” says Martin Siegert, principal investigator of BAS’s Subglacial Lake Ellsworth experiment. “We’re really disappointed.”

The team of researchers said supplies for the mission were dwindling, leaving them few options. In a posting written Thursday, the team of scientists detailed the process and the issues they encountered.

“During this process, hot water seeped into the porous surface layers of ice and was lost. The team attempted to replenish this water loss by digging and melting more snow, but their efforts could not compensate. The additional time taken to attempt to establish the cavity link significantly depleted the fuel stocks to such a level as to render the remaining operation unviable. Reluctantly the team had no option but to discontinue the program for this season,” wrote Siegert.

“This is, of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year,” Siegert added. “By the end the equipment was working well, and much of it has now been fully field tested. A full report on the field season will be compiled when the engineers and program manager return to United Kingdom.”

The mission was watched closely by scientists around the world. Biologists had pondered the possibility of discovering life in the underground lake, which they say has been in a state of perpetual isolation for more than 500,000 years. Lake Ellsworth, the site of the project, lies under 2 miles (3 kilometers) of ice and has been largely sealed off from the outside world. Scientists have been engaged in a 16-year gambit to drill down and take water samples from the lake. Researchers have suggested that life able to exist under such environmental conditions may help researchers better understand the origins of life on Earth and the possible forms life could take on other planets.

The team noted that the mission, which represented the cutting edge of science from the start, was largely an attempt to test the boundaries of current technology.  The harsh Antarctic environment, coupled with the complete darkness of winter, translated to the team working at the site only during the comparatively mild months of austral spring and summer, from November through January. The drilling project hit its first hurdle 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.

“It’s really the cutting edge of science, the work we’re trying to do—it’s stuff that no one’s ever done before,” Siegert noted in a piece published on his blog on Thursday. “When you do have a technical failure, you shouldn’t regard the research as being failed. It’s part of a learning curve. We’re looking forward to having a bit of a holiday and a break. It’s been quite intense.”

It remains unclear whether the mission will resume next year. The research team says it is “weatherizing” the equipment while considering when they might resume the $13 million project.

The decision to shut down operations comes as Russian scientists earlier this year announced success at a different drilling site. The Russian scientists, drilling down into the waters of Lake Vostok, reached the lake’s waters during the last drilling season in early February. While the team has yet to discover any evidence of microbial life, they said they have plans to return to the site in early 2013.