The British Antarctic Survey project had intended drill through the ice using near-boiling water to reach the lake, believed to have been sealed off from contact with the surface for as much as half a million years.
Scientists say 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 BBC reported Thursday.
"We kept trying for over 24 hours to reach that connection but we couldn't do it," said principal project investigator Martin Siegert from the University of Bristol.
"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 research team said it was "weatherizing" the equipment while considering when they might resume the $13 million project.
"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," Siegert said.
The scientific goal of the project was to seek evidence of simple life forms existing in the extreme conditions of pressure and temperature in the sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth.
The project first experienced problems last week when the main boiler used to heat drilling water suffered a failure and a replacement part hard to be flown to the site from Britain.