I wrote two weeks ago about an exciting project to drill down to hidden Lake Ellsworth in Antarctica. The lake, likely cut off from the world for at least half a million years, could contain microbial life which has developed in ways unique on Earth. Unfortunately, not three weeks after beginning, the project has been shut down due to technical issues.
Engineers and scientists operating the boiling-water drill were unable to align the drill holes in a way which generated sufficient pressure. Due to the limits of transportation to and from the bottom of the world, project leaders estimate it could be as many as five years before another attempt can be made. By that time, similar teams from the United States and Russia will have likely also made attempts at similar sites.
In the last piece, I suggested that drilling techniques similar to those used by the British team at Lake Ellsworth could potentially work for drilling in places such as Enceladus or Europa. Those environments are substantially more challenging than Antarctica, however, so failure here on Earth casts doubt on even medium-term chances of similar attempts elsewhere in the solar system. And who knows what 'medium term' even means. If it's going to take five years to correct issues with the Lake Ellsworth project, how much longer will it be until such drilling is routine? Until it's been miniaturized? Until it's passed the rigorous tests required of anything which goes into space?
Research in Antarctica, the Marianas Trench, and other remote locations on Earth is challenging, expensive, and ultimately time-consuming. Just like in space, new ideas can take painfully long to develop, longer to execute, and incur frustrating delays along the way. It's important to keep our eyes on the prize, even if that payoff is years (decades!) away, because just working towards that goal often generates more useful and interesting discoveries than we could have initially imagined.