The Russians have been drilling down through miles of glacial ice into an ancient freshwater lake that's been sealed off from the rest of the planet for millions of years. If they find life down there, it could make it more likely that we'll find life elsewhere in our solar system too.
Lake Vostok is a freshwater lake approximately the size of New Jersey that's completely buried under two and a half miles of solid ice in Antarctica. It's sealed off from the outside world, and may have been in this state for the last 15 million years. After a decade of planning, Russian scientists are within just about a hundred feet of getting to the lake and the new forms of life they hope to find there.
When the Russians founded their Antarctic base in 1957, Vostok Station was originally situated at the South magnetic pole. The pole has since decided that it would be happier elsewhere and wandered some 90 miles to the south. So, Vostok Station is now just out in the middle of nowhere in a place where they've happened to measure the lowest temperature on Earth, −128.6 °F, and where acclimatization to the utter unfriendliness of the environment generally involves headaches, eye twitches, ear pains, nose bleeds, perceived suffocation, sudden rises in blood pressure, loss of sleep, reduced appetite, vomiting, joint and muscle pain, arthritis, and weight loss of up to 25 pounds. Sign me up!
Through sheer dumb luck, Vostok Station happens to be right above this massive subglacial lake, and the Russians are extremely close to getting into it with a drill to take some samples. They're trying to be careful, but their methods involve pumping massive amounts of kerosene and Freon into the hole to keep it from refreezing, and other scientists are worried that the water in the lake contains enough dissolved gasses that when it does get broken into, all 1,300 cubic miles of water will come shooting up out of the hole like an abused bottle of black cherry Jolt in a giant geyser. The Russians really want to be the first ones into the lake, though, and as a professor from Columbia University puts it: "they didn't get to the moon first, they really, really want to be the first people to drill into a subglacial lake." Since, you know, that's just as good.
The reason that the environment of Lake Vostok is so potentially exciting is that in many ways it's a fairly good approximation of the environment on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Both of these moons have surfaces covered in miles of ice, probably with liquid water underneath. Neither of them have atmospheres to speak of, but neither does Lake Vostok. If life can exist in a closed ecosystem in Antarctica, it's entirely possible that it it can also exist in similar closed ecosystems elsewhere in our solar system. And if life exists elsewhere in our solar system, the chances of it existing in other solar systems is vastly better. If the results from Lake Vostok are promising, the Russians eventually want to send a little swimming robot down there to explore, a mission that may eventually be duplicated on Europa.
And if there ends up being nothing exciting down there? Well, I guess best case we'd have ourselves some new ultra-premium bottled water. And worst case, a Balrog.