Photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images.
How long does it take to drill two miles under Antarctica to a reach a lake that has been virtually untouched for the past 20 million years and might just hold insight into both our distant past and to interplanetary life? Twenty years, it turns out, in some of the worst working conditions on the planet.
Russian scientists completed the decades-long project, an inverted space race deep underground, just before the team had to leave at the end of the Antarctic summer. As the Associated Press explains, the long-anticipated reaching of Lake Vostok, as it's called, opens up the possibility of exploring a part of our planet that's been, essentially, untouched for 20 million years.
Scientists are relatively confident that life exists in the lake, as they've previously found bacteria on ice removed from the borehole, Discover Magazine notes. If it does, the discovery could have significant implications for research and exploration of our solar system: The lake exists in conditions believed to be similar to those under ice crusts on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa, and Saturn's moon Enceladus.
Lake Vostok is part of a chain of about 200 underground lakes under Antarctica. Some of them were formed while Antarctica and Australia were still connected. The Washington Post''s feature on the lake explains that the site is the "crown jewel" of Antarctic exploration as far as scientists are concerned. In addition to providing research opportunities applicable to our solar system, the lake might also provide an unprecedented glimpse into bacterial life forms on Earth from before the Ice Age.
The methods used to drill the borehole have come under fire from some, however. The team used over 66 tons of lubricants and antifreeze in the process which might contaminate the lake and compromising any possible research there. Russian scientists responded to the criticism by saying that the pressure built up in the lake had, as they anticipated, pushed water up into the hole immediately upon the drill breaking through, freezing and blocking out the chemicals.
Assuming that the lake is still pristine, scientists (and science lovers) worldwide are excited about the discovery. NASA's chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told the AP that the significance of the lake, apparently, can't be understated: "In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life," he said.