A Russian team searching for signs of life beneath a 14-million-year-old frozen Antarctic lake has had to halt drilling just a few meters from water, potentially damaging 20 years of work in the process.
The team — headed up by the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg — had to call off work just 29 meters [95-foot] short of the end goal because the Antarctic winter is fast closing in. News that they plan to fill the 3,749-meter [12,300-foot] borehole with kerosene to prevent it from freezing will further trouble groups who fear continued research will contaminate the lake.
Alexei Turkeyev, chief of the Russian-run Vostok Station, told Reuters on Feb. 4: “It’s minus-40 [degrees Celsius, which happens to equal minus-40 Fahrenheit] outside. But whatever, we’re working. We’re feeling good.” Unfortunately Turkeyev and his team were forced to pack up last-minute amid fears they would be stranded. Temperatures above Lake Vostok fall to as low as 89 degrees below zero Celsius [minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit] during winter, the coldest recorded natural temperature on Earth.
The lake has been protected from the atmosphere and the other surrounding 150 subglacial lakes by a 4-kilometer-[2.5-mile] thick ice cap. What lies beneath the mammoth sheet of ice may provide answers to what Earth was like before the Ice Age and how life has evolved.
Most importantly, Lake Vostok appears to be incredibly similar to the frozen lakes of Jupiter’s Europa satellite and Saturn’s Enceladus. As Wired UK reported earlier this week, NASA and the ESA have already planned a joint mission to explore Europa’s lake in 2020. If life is found in Vostok, the implications for the possibility of extraterrestrial life on Europa and Enceladus are huge.
“It’s like exploring an alien planet where no one has been before,” said Valery Lukin of the Arctic and Antarctic Research told Reuters. “We don’t know what we’ll find.”
Drilling began in 1990 after satellite images revealed a series of subglacial lakes in the region, but work has been held-up several times amid concerns that progress could damage the previously untouched environment below.