UNCERTAINTY surrounds the future of an ambitious project to drill through more than 3km of Antarctic ice into an ancient buried lake.

Experts from a North-East university had hoped to find signs of life in the water and clues to the Earth's past climate in the mud at the lake floor.

But the team at Lake Ellsworth called off the mission in the early hours of Christmas Day UK time after they were unable to join the main borehole with a parallel hole that was to be used to recover drilling water.

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The team is now "weatherising" the equipment and it is unclear when they will be able to resume the project.

It will come as a blow for Professor Mike Bentley, from Durham University’s geography department, who is leading the UK-based team, and hoped to study sediment samples brought up from the icy depths with ‘coring’ equipment developed in the region.

He said many years of planning and design work by scientists and engineers had been put into the project to explore the lake to find out more about life in extreme environments.

The £8m project, headed by the British Antarctic Survey (Bas), aimed to drill carefully down using near-boiling water to pierce the lake, which has been untouched for as much as half a million years.

The programme, which started two weeks ago, ran into trouble as the main boiler used to heat drilling water broke down, with a replacement part being flown from the UK reaching the remote site last Friday.

With the boiler working, the team aimed to make two parallel boreholes, intended to join 300m below the surface, but they were unable to reach the cavity during the course of drilling the second, main borehole despite trying for over 20 hours.

Audrey Stevens, spokesperson for Bas, said: “We will try again, but it is uncertain when that will be. There will have to be a full report into what's gone wrong.”

The team is packing up its equipment and protecting it against the bitter Antarctic winter.

It may be more than another season before the team can return to try again.

There are a number of other lakes beneath the ice sheet, which may prove easier for other teams to reach.

Ms Stevens said: “We have never depicted it as a race, but it may well happen that others get there first.”