Race on to find life under Antartic ice
14 February 2012, 17:55
Moscow - The race is on to discover life in the most remote and extreme environment known on Earth.
has set the pace, piercing through Antarctica's icy crust to reach a
freshwater lake to try to find ancient or new kinds of life that have
adapted to the extremely cold, sunless climate and may shed light on the
origins of evolution.
Scientists from the US and Britain are
close on Moscow's heels, sure that their technology will speed analysis
of the depths, hidden away for tens of millions of years.
is found in the icy darkness, it will provide the best answer yet to
whether life can exist on other planets like Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa
or Saturn's satellite Enceladus.
"It's like the first flight to
the Moon," said Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic mission,
comparing the achievement to the US space race victory over the Soviet
Union in 1969.
After 20 years of stop-go
drilling, Russia was the first to pierce through 3 769m of solid ice to
Lake Vostok - the largest and most isolated of over 350 known subglacial
lakes, untouched for some 15 to 25 million years.
drilling technology it used means Russian scientists will have to go
back to collect frozen samples of the lake water for analysis in 2013.
leaves the door open for US or British scientists to steal the lead.
Both teams will be equipped with microscopes, enabling them to analyse
the freshwater samples each expedition will bring up from two other
shallower subglacial lakes.
Both will also head to Antarctica
from mid-October this year until February; the British team to Lake
Ellsworth, the Americans to Lake Whillans.
"They have broken
through the ice, opened a window to that world, so we can all more or
less follow suit and now do some real science," said John Priscu, a
scientist with the US Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research
Drilling (Wissard) mission.
"Most of the drill is on a vessel right now, so it's on its way," he said.
United States programme will have microscopes in the field... We should
know what is there as we sample it," said Priscu, who suspects an oasis
of life may lurk under the featureless white, possibly teeming around
Unlike the US and British programmes, Russia will have to take a sample of frozen water from the lake home for analysis.
century after the first expeditions to the South Pole, the discovery of
Antarctica's hidden network of subglacial lakes via satellite imagery
in the late 1990s set off a new exploratory fervour among scientists the
world over, who say the ice cap acts like a blanket trapping the
Earth's geothermal heat.
Priscu and British mission scientists denied it was a race, saying they were exploring different Antarctic lakes.
But scientists say there is an undeniable draw to be at the cusp of such a discovery.
are scientific explorers," said Martin Siegert, head of the University
of Edinburgh's School of Geosciences who is leading the British
"Science is driven by competition, people want to be the first to do things."
has dreamed of dipping a toe into the mysterious Lake Vostok - the
world's third largest body of water - since discovering its Soviet-era
Antarctic station sat above it.
"This is a great event," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Friday, congratulating the Lake Vostok expedition.
Presented with a cup of water from the melted borehole ice, Putin joked it was a drink fit for dinosaurs.
the success, a bitterness lingers among Russian scientists that they
were forced to suspend drilling for years over international criticism
of their environmental standards.
To answer concerns that drilling fluid could pollute the pristine lake, the Russian team engineered new technology.
Russian borehole, pumped full of kerosene and anti-freeze, hangs like a
needle over the lake. But Russia says it used a smaller drill to punch
through the last metres, then immediately withdrew it to allow the lake
water to percolate up the borehole and freeze there, creating a frozen
"I can say that absolutely nothing fell into the lake,"
said Nikolai Vasilyev, who led a team from the St Petersburg Mining
University to operate the drilling.
Speaking by satellite phone
from aboard the Russian icebreaker, the Akademik Fyodorov, Vasilyev said
the last hours of drilling were particularly tense.
the breakthrough came after years of work in one of the coldest spots
on Earth, it was just hours before the last February 6 flight out before
the onset of Antarctica's winter - where the coldest temperature on
Earth was recorded of -89.2°C.
"We finished at night and the
plane was to fly the next day so it was very tense," Vasilyev said. "It
is very, very difficult work. Every centimetre is a step toward
something new and unknown."
By contrast, the US and British
missions will drill with hot water from melted glacier ice that is
filtered and UV radiated, which they say is environmental safer.
"The other reason we use it is it's quick," Siegert said.
as Russia spent years mechanically chewing through thick ice crystals
to reach Lake Vostok, Siegert said it will take his team three days to
melt down to lake Ellsworth.
The British expedition will then
immediately deploy a probe into the lake to collect samples of the water
columns and of the bottom sediment. It will have only 24 - 36 hours to
run research before the drill hole freezes up again.
however, said he has his doubts over the technology - concerns Russia
may put to the US and British missions at the next international panel
of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (Scar) in June.
the ancient water of Lake Ellsworth: It is absolutely untouched. Maybe
there is life there and a pot of boiling water is poured in," Lukin
"Do we want to study micro-biodiversity or microbe soup?"
In the future, Russian researchers also plan to explore Lake Vostok with a submersible, he said.
space exploration metaphors are not incidental. Studies of Antarctica's
subglacial lakes also offer insights into the search for life beyond
Earth, both in terms of technology, such as drilling and contamination
controls, as well as how life evolves and what makes for habitable
"Space is very much an integral part of the
subglacial lake programme as a next step," said microbiologist David
Pearce with the British Antarctic Survey.
Scientists say they
suspect the Antarctic waters are supersaturated with oxygen and other
gases and may be home to bacteria and single-celled micro-organisms
They say that even if the dark waters under
Antarctic prove barren, it will be a cutting-edge discovery: The only
known sterile place on the planet.
"It is learning about the limits of the terrestrial biosphere," said astrobiologist Charles Cockell of the Open University.
"Ultimately who gets the samples really doesn't matter."
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