By Laura Shin
Posting in Energy
In the quest to find extraterrestrial life, scientists drilled through two miles of ice to reach an Antarctic lake that has not been exposed to heat or sun for up to 34 million years.
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.”
Related on SmartPlanet:
- Getting closer and closer to finding an Earth-like planet
- New space telescope is biggest yet, with "dish" 30 times Earth's diameter
- Oldest fossils found, show what life on other planets might look like
- How scientists concluded there is water on Mars
- China ramps up space exploration as U.S. program shrinks
- Will defense budget cuts hurt science and innovation?
photo: map of Antarctica showing the location of Lake Vostok in red (NASA/Wikimedia)
Feb 8, 2012
If I am not mistaken NPR recently stated that some 1,400 gallons of a kerosine and freon mixture were used as drilling fluid on this project. Was the drilling fluid pumped to the surface before punching through the plug? As the gulf oil spill demonstrated its pretty difficult to accurately monitor and report conditions at that depth.
Hi ddcmall, You're right. The New York Times explains it like this in the article I linked to above: The Russian plan to prevent the drilling fluid from reaching the pristine lake water was to plug the bottom of the bore hole with an inert fluid, Freon, and to drill the final distance with a heated drill tip instead of a motorized drill. Enough kerosene would be removed to lessen the pressure in the bore hole so that when the lake was reached, lake water would flow up the bore hole, then freezing and forming an icy plug. That is exactly what happened, Russian scientists confirmed. Laura
Now all they need to do is pump hot water into the bore-hole and flood out the kerosine mixture; brilliant. Must be Russians brains thinking out the whole operation, unlike the Deep Horizon incident. Henfracar