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Russian scientists reach lake under Antarctica

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on February 8, 2012

Gigantic freshwater reservoir may harbor life from Earth’s distant past

By Vladimir Isachenkov

MOSCOW — After more than two decades of drilling in Antarctica, Russian scientists have reached the surface of a

Russian researchers at the Vostok station in Antarctica pose for a picture after reaching subglacial lake Vostok. Scientists hold the sign reading "05.02.12, Vostok station, boreshaft 5gr, lake at depth 3769.3 metres."

gigantic freshwater lake hidden under miles of ice for some 20 million years — a lake that may hold life from the distant past and clues to the search for life on other planets.

Reaching Lake Vostok is a major discovery avidly anticipated by scientists around the world hoping that it may allow a glimpse into microbial life forms, not visible to the naked eye, that existed before the Ice Age. It may also provide precious material that would help look for life on the ice-crusted moons of Jupiter and Saturn or under Mars’ polar ice caps where conditions could be similar.

“It’s like exploring another planet, except this one is ours,” Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell told The Associated Press by email.

Valery Lukin, the head of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, which is in charge of the mission, said in Wednesday’s statement that his team reached the lake’s surface on Sunday.

Lukin has previously compared the Lake Vostok effort to the moon race that the Soviet Union lost to the United States,

In this Jan. 9, 2007, photo provided by the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute of St. Petersburg, showing the Russian drilling machine 5-G works in Antarctica.

telling the Russian media he was proud that Russia will be the first this time. Although far from being the world’s deepest lake, the severe weather of Antarctica and the location’s remoteness made the project challenging.

“There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,” said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI. “It’s a meeting with the unknown.”

Savatyugin said scientists hope to find primeval bacteria that could expand the human knowledge of the origins of life.

“We need to see what we have here before we send missions to ice-crusted moons, like Jupiter’s moon Europa,” he said.

Lake Vostok is 160 miles (250 kilometers) long and 30 miles (50 kilometers) across at its widest point, similar in area to Lake Ontario. It lies about 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) beneath the surface and is the largest in a web of nearly 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lake is warmed underneath by geothermal energy.

The project, however, has drawn strong fears that 60 metric tons (66 tons) of lubricants and antifreeze used in the drilling may contaminate the pristine lake. The Russian researchers have insisted the bore would only slightly touch the lake’s surface and that a surge in pressure will send the water rushing up the shaft where it will freeze, immediately sealing out the toxic chemicals.

Lukin said about 1.5 cubic meters (50 cubic feet) of kerosene and freon poured up to the surface from the boreshaft, proof that the lake water streamed up from beneath, froze, and blocked the hole.

The scientists will later remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer comes. Read the rest of this entry »

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