Russian scientists reported Wednesday that they achieved their decade-long quest to bore through two miles of ice to reach a prehistoric Antarctic lake.
Their goal? To see if life can exist in one of the harshest environments on Earth -- which could in turn give hope that life exists on another planet.
The quest to reach the lake
Lake Vostok is, as the Washington Post describes it, "a pristine body of water untouched by light or wind" for between 15 million and 34 million years.
The drillers worked in some of the most difficult conditions on earth to bore through two miles of ice and keep the five-inch bore hole from freezing over.
As reported in the New York Times, the director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, Dr. Valery Lukin, told the Interfax news agency, “For me, the discovery of this lake is comparable with the first flight into space. By technological complexity, by importance, by uniqueness."
The scientists took care not to contaminate the lake. They lessened the pressure in the bore hole as it neared the lake so that lake water under pressure would rush up the bore hole more than 100 feet, pushing drilling fluid away from the lake. The water then froze, forming a plug that will prevent contamination.
In the last few weeks, as the Antarctic summer drew to a close, the drillers raced time to reach the lake before flights became impossible. Temperatures were already minus 45, and flights cease at minus 50. The researchers will return during the next Antarctic summer to take samples.
How Lake Vostok could give us clues about alien life
What researchers will be looking for when they return are microbes. While microbes are too small to see, they form the basis of all life. As the Washington Post reports, microbes are "a big deal because [they] evolve. For 90 percent of the time that life existed on Earth, there were only microbes."
More than 10 million years ago Lake Vostok likely supported life since there was little or no ice there. But because the lake has been cut off from heat and sunlight since then, any life that exists there now would need another way to get energy, the Post says.
If life does turn out to exist there, that could mean that life exists on the moons of Jupiter, such as Europa, which has a comparable environment of subsurface icy water.
And it would be significant if microbes existed on those moons, because, as Bruce Jakosky, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, told the Post, humans come from microbes, and “if there’s microbial life widespread throughout the galaxy, that increases the chances that there’s intelligent life elsewhere.”
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- How scientists concluded there is water on Mars
- China ramps up space exploration as U.S. program shrinks
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photo: map of Antarctica showing the location of Lake Vostok in red (NASA/Wikimedia)