Lake Vostok: “Admit it, it sounds just like a thousand horror-movie setups.”

That was the Professor’s not entirely inaccurate comment this time last year, when a Russian team came up just short in their attempt to reach Lake Vostok – the largest sub-glacial freshwater lake on Earth.

The project to drill down to the lake, which covers 16 square kilometres and has been sealed under approximately 3,750m of ice in the Antarctic for around 15 million years, began over 20 years ago.

The Russian team returned to the drill site during the recent Antartic summer and, as the update to the NewScientist report notes

Russian scientists have now confirmed that they have indeed breached Lake Vostok. It is the first time one of Antarctica’s subglacial lakes has been penetrated. According to an official statement [in Russian], the drill entered the lake at 20.25 Moscow time on 5 February. Thirty to forty metres of water rose into the borehole, confirming that the drill had reached the lake itself and not a small pocket of liquid water above the lake surface.

The BBC’s spaceman Jonathan Amos has a quote from the Russian team leader

“This fills my soul with joy,” said Valery Lukin, from Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St Petersburg, which has been overseeing the project,

“This will give us the possibility to biologically evaluate the evolution of living organisms… because those organisms spent a long time without contact with the atmosphere, without sunlight,” he was quoted as saying in a translation of national media reports by BBC Monitoring.

And he adds

The British Antarctic Survey (Bas) is hoping to begin its effort to drill into Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica later this year. An American crew is targeting Lake Whillans, also in the West.

“It is an important milestone that has been completed and a major achievement for the Russians because they’ve been working on this for years,” Professor Martin Siegert, the principal investigator on the Bas-Ellsworth project said.

“The Russian team share our mission to understand subglacial lake environments and we look forward to developing collaborations with their scientists and also those from the US and other nations, as we all embark on a quest to comprehend these pristine, extreme environments,” he told AP.

The projects are of particular fascination to astrobiologists, who study the origins and likely distribution of life across the Universe.

And from a Huffington Post report

“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.

Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite its high pressure and constant cold — conditions similar to those expected to be found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s move Enceladus.

“In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life,” NASA’s chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told the AP by email.

That’s assuming there is life there…  And that it’s not just like a thousand horror-movie setups…  ANYhoo…  Here’s part 1/4 of the 2000 Horizon documentary – The Lost World of Lake Vostok.  Via Top Documentary Films