14-Million-Year-Old Buried Antarctic Lake –Preview of Jupiter’s Europa, Soon to Yield Its Secrets

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Vostok Station, Antarctica: Specialists at the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute predict they will find 'the only giant super-clean water system on the planet– ancient Lake Vostok, the largest and deepest sub-glacial lake in Antarctica –under 2.5 miles of ice at a location that is the highest, driest and coldest desert on our planet.

But the Russian team has  have fallen silent just days before the deadly Antarctic winter is due to begin. They had forecast that the extraordinary 5,400 cubic kilometres of water in the pristine prehistoric lake, encased by ice since before man existed, will be 'twice cleaner than double-distilled water'. There is also the strong prospect of discovering completely unknown life forms in its clear ancient waters.


Geothermal heat from Earth's core keeps the lake liquid. Its conditions are often described as 'alien' because they are thought to be an analogue to the subterranean lakes on Jupiter's moon Europa.   The water inside the lake has had no contact with man-made pollutants or Earthly life forms for millions of years.

If the Russia effort succeeds, it could opens up a whole new chapter in our understanding of our planet and possibly moons in our solar system and planets far beyond. When the breakthrough moment comes the Russian team must take precautions not to contaminate the hidden underground world with bacteria and fluids from the drilling. To make sure the water stays completely pure, the machinery will not even touch the lake. Instead suction will be used to suck samples of the unique water into the borehole, where it will freeze before being raised to the surface for analysis. 

Last year the scientists working in freezing temperatures at Lake Vostok came within ten to 50 meters of the surface of the 'relic lake'. But the current intrepid team needs to leave by Monday, before already ice-cold temperatures in the desolate spot drop another 40 degrees centigrade.

The team faces the risk of an explosion with oxygen and nitrogen trapped below. They are trying to make sure only a small amount of air can escape to avert the risk.The scientists have been drilling 24 hours a day in three shifts as they race to break through before winter descends.

John Priscu, a Montana State University microbiologist  and Antarctic researcher, told the Washington Post the Russian scientists had told him they were just 40ft from where the waterline is thought to lie. He told the newspaper: 'This is a huge moment for science and exploration, breaking through to this enormous lake that we didn't even know existed until the 1990s.

'I think we'll find unique organisms,' Priscu, told Scientific American. On January 13, Mr Priscu said the team was progressing well, drilling 5.7ft a day. He said they had switched from an ice drill to a thermal drill to melt through the last 16 to 32ft of ice.

Lake Vostok is one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. Though its existence suspected since the end of the 19th century, was only confirmed by sonar and satellite imaging in the last decade and a half.

Image at the top of page is a satellite image of Lake Vostok.

 

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