13,000 feet beneath the surface of Antarctica's vast ice sheet rests the otherworldly Lake Vostok. Home to some of the most extreme conditions on Earth, Vostok has remained isolated from the rest of the world for 20 million years, and completely inaccessible to mankind. Until now.
Yesterday, reports originating from Ria Novosti — a state-run, Russian news agency — began to circulate, indicating that the twenty-year mission to reach Vostok's ice-entombed waters had finally reached its goal. Other media outlets were quick to pick up the news as well, citing an unnamed scientific source, who claimed that, "Yesterday [February, 5], our scientists stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 meters and reached the surface of the sub-glacial lake."
Whether the team has finally drilled through to the Lake, however, remains to be seen. Is it likely? Yes. A spokesperson from the Russian Antarctic Expedition in St. Petersburg told New Scientist this morning that the drill did make contact with water last week, and that the water was automatically drawn up into the borehole, as planned.
But the team must now check the water levels in the borehole, and readings from their equipment's pressure sensors, to confirm that the water is, in fact, from Vostok — and not from a pocket of water in the layers of ice overlaying the lake. The fact that this confirmation process is ongoing probably explains why there is still no official announcement on the website of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (the government agency that heads up the country's polar science expeditions). Valery Lukin, director of the Russian Antarctic Program, told Nature this morning that the team's data could be processed by as early as tomorrow.
In any case, even if the lake has been breached, it will still be almost a year before Russia's scientists have an opportunity to address the question that everyone is so anxious to know the answer to: whether Vostok's pitch-black waters — which have been cut off from light for millions of years — harbor any weird new life forms. If they do, it would strengthen the prospect of discovering exoplanetary life in the subsurface waters of Jupiter's moon Europa, Saturn's moon Enceladus, and any other cosmic bodies that harbor water, subglacial or otherwise.
And if they don't? Well, that would be disappointing (after all, who wouldn't want to discover a new species of subglacial extremophile?), but it would also be incredibly interesting. After all, everywhere on this planet that we've found water, we've found life; to not find it in the waters of Vostok — the third largest lake by volume on Earth — would be totally unprecedented.
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