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Determining the expected age at a potential ice-core drilling site on a polar ice sheet generally depends on a combination of information from remote-sensing methods, estimates of current accumulation and modelling. This poses irreducible uncertainties in retrieving an undisturbed ice core of the desired age. Although recently perfected radar techniques will improve the picture of the ice sheet below future drilling sites, rapid prospective drillings could further increase the success of deep drilling projects. Here we design and explore a drilling system for a minimum-size rapid-access hole. The advantages of a small hole are the low demand for drilling fluid, low overall weight of the equipment, fast installing and de-installing and low costs. We show that, in theory, drilling of a 20 mm hole to a depth of 3000 m is possible in ∼4 days. First concepts have been realized and verified in the field. Both the drill cuttings and the hole itself can be used to characterize the properties of the ice sheet and its potential to provide a trustworthy palaeo-record. A candidate drilling site could be explored in ∼2 weeks, which would enable the characterization of several sites in one summer season.