After more than two decades of drilling in Antarctica, Russian researchers have broken through 2.4 miles of ice to reach a 20-million-year-old freshwater lake that could contain clues on life from the distant past.
The Subglacial Lake Vostok System. Graphic by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columiba University.
Courtesy Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Lake Vostok is 160 miles by 30 miles, similar in area to Lake Ontario, Russia's RT television reports.
WATCH: Animation on the project.
Valery Lukin, the head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in charge of the mission, said in a statement today that his team reached the lake's surface Sunday, the Associated Press reports.
"There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years," Lev Savatyugin, a researcher who was involved in preparing the mission, tells the AP. "It's a meeting with the unknown."
Savatyugin says 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-crust moons, like Jupiter's moon Europa," he says.
When drilling work began around Vostok Station in the 1970s, scientists had no idea a mysterious lake lay under the massive ice sheet, Russia's RT television reports.
It was only in 1996 that Russian specialists, along with British counterparts, discovered with sonar and satellite imaging what later proved to be one of the world's largest freshwater reservoirs.
The project has raised concerns, however, that the pristine lake could be contaminated by the tons of lubricants and antifreeze used in the drilling, the AP reports.
Lukin says, however, that as expected, a surge in pressure sent water into the drilled shaft and sealed it shortly after the boring tip dipped into the lake.
The scientists will later remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer comes.
"In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life," NASA's chief scientist Waleed Abdalati tells the AP.
Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite high pressure and constant cold — conditions similar to those expected to be found under ice crust on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.