Russians successfully drill into ancient Antarctic subglacial lake

Russian news is reporting that a group of scientists in Antarctica have, after two decades, finally managed to drill into an ancient Antarctic lake that may have been sealed off from the rest of the planet for millions of years. They're looking for weird forms of life, and for clues about life elsewhere in our solar system.

Lake Vostok is the third largest freshwater lake on Earth, but we didn't even know it existed until NASA spotted it on radar back in 1990. This is because it's completely buried under 12,000 feet or so of Antarctic ice, and has been for the last 10 or 20 million years.

Anything that lives down there would be adapted to living without sunlight, surviving solely on the little bit of heat from our planet that keeps the water liquid, and there are a couple other places in our solar system with conditions very similar to this, including Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. The hope is that finding life in Lake Vostock means that we might have a shot at finding aliens in the outer solar system, too.

When we're talking about potentially pristine ecosystems like the one that might be down in that lake, the last thing you generally want to do is shove a drill right into them. Drilling is a messy process, and the Russians have been using nasty stuff like kerosene and Freon to keep their drill operating in such deep ice.

It's not like the Russians don't care about contamination, though: their plan all along has been to drill the last 30 feet or so with a thermal drill that melts the ice with warm and relatively clean silicone oil. The drill would stop itself as soon as it detected water (before breaking through into the lake completely), and then by hoisting the drill up out of the hole, lake water (and any leftover contaminants) would get sucked up by the low pressure. The liquid in the hole would then be allowed to freeze into a plug, and next year, the Russians will come back and drill into that ice to get their lake water sample. We haven't heard specifics, but hopefully they've stuck to this plan and it's worked.

So really, all of the exciting news is going to happen next season, when we actually get to find out what's going on in the lake water. For their part, the Russians are already planning ahead, thinking about whether they might be able to send a robot submarine down there to search the entire lake from top to bottom for sea monsters, alien spaceships, and wayward scuba divers.

Via Nature and Washington Post

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