A tiny electronic component the size of a thumbnail holds the key to the future of an £8m search for life beneath the ice of Antarctica. The project to drill through the ice-sheet to reach the hidden waters of Lake Ellsworth has been on hold for the past week after a boiler broke down.
The component just arrived after a journey of roughly 15,000km. Engineers will now attempt to fit the part in the next few days in the hope of restarting drilling next week. The drill is meant to be powered by hot water but the entire effort had to shut down when a "varistor" – a variable resistor – on the boiler’s circuit board burned out. A replacement also failed.
A spare was sent from Britain via Chile to the remote camp in West Antarctica. But tension surrounding this operation is mounting because of the uncertainty about whether the boiler will not only fire up but also whether it will continue to run for at least a week – or fail again as a result of a fundamental fault.
A mission of staggering size and scope was halted by the tiniest of parts
Another major concern is the amount of fuel being used to run a back-up boiler which is essential for keeping the drill system from freezing up.