* Russian expedition says broke through to lake on Feb. 5
* Scientists suspect lake hides unknown life forms
* Say harsh environment holds clues to life on other planets
* Drilling into subglacial lakes raises contamination fears
By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW, Feb 13 (Reuters) - The race is on to discover
life in the most remote and extreme environment known on Earth.
Russia has set the pace, piercing through Antarctica's icy
crust to reach a freshwater lake to try to find ancient or new
kinds of life that have adapted to the extremely cold, sunless
climate and may shed light on the origins of evolution.
Scientists from the United States and Britain are close on
Moscow's heels, sure that their technology will speed analysis
of the depths, hidden away for tens of millions of years.
If life is found in the icy darkness, it will provide the
best answer yet to whether life can exist on other planets like
Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa or Saturn's satellite Enceladus.
"It's like the first flight to the Moon," said Valery Lukin,
head of the Russian Antarctic mission, comparing the achievement
to the U.S. space race victory over the Soviet Union in 1969.
After 20 years of stop-go drilling, Russia was the first to
pierce through 3,769 metres (12,365 ft) of solid ice to Lake
Vostok - the largest and most isolated of over 350 known
subglacial lakes, untouched for some 15-25 million years.
But the drilling technology it used means Russian scientists
will have to go back to collect frozen samples of the lake water
for analysis in 2013.
That leaves the door open for U.S. or British scientists to
steal the lead. Both teams will be equipped with microscopes,
enabling them to analyse the freshwater samples each expedition
will bring up from two other shallower subglacial lakes.
Both will also head to the bottom of the world in the next
Antarctic summer from mid-October this year until February; the
British team to lake Ellsworth, the Americans to
"They have broken through the ice, opened a window to that
world, so we can all more or less follow suit and now do some
real science," said John Priscu, a scientist with the U.S.
Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling
"Most of the drill is on a vessel right now, so it's on its
way," he said.
"The United States programme will have microscopes in the
field ... We should know what is there as we sample it," said
Priscu, who suspects an oasis of life may lurk under the
featureless white, possibly teeming around thermal vents.
Unlike the U.S. and British programmes, Russia
will have to take a sample of frozen water from the lake home
A century after the first expeditions to the South Pole, the
discovery of Antarctica's hidden network of subglacial lakes via
satellite imagery in the late 1990s set off a new exploratory
fervour among scientists the world over, who say the ice cap
acts like a blanket trapping the Earth's geothermal heat.
Priscu and British mission scientists denied it was a race,
saying they were exploring different Antarctic lakes.
But scientists say there is an undeniable draw to be at the
cusp of such a discovery.
"We are scientific explorers," said Martin Siegert, head of
the University of Edinburgh's School of Geosciences who is
leading the British expedition. "Science is driven by
competition, people want to be the first to do things."
Russia has dreamed of dipping a toe into the mysterious Lake
Vostok - the world's third largest body of water - since
discovering its Soviet-era Antarctic station sat above it.
"This is a great event," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin said on Friday, congratulating the Lake Vostok expedition.
Presented with a cup of water from the melted borehole ice,
Putin joked it was a drink fit for dinosaurs.
Despite the success, a bitterness lingers among Russian
scientists that they were forced to suspend drilling for years
over international criticism of their environmental standards.
To answer concerns that drilling fluid could pollute the
pristine lake, the Russian team engineered new technology.
The Russian borehole, pumped full of kerosene and
anti-freeze, hangs like a needle over the lake. But Russia says
it used a smaller drill to punch through the last metres, then
immediately withdrew it to allow the lake water to percolate up
the borehole and freeze there, creating a frozen plug.
"I can say that absolutely nothing fell into the lake," said
Nikolai Vasilyev, who led a team from the St Petersburg Mining
University to operate the drilling.
Speaking by satellite phone from aboard the Russian
icebreaker, the Akademik Fyodorov, Vasilyev said the last hours
of drilling were particularly tense.
When the breakthrough came after years of work in one of the
coldest spots on Earth, it was just hours before the last Feb. 6
flight out before the onset of Antarctica's winter - where the
coldest temperature on Earth was recorded of minus 89.2 Celsius
(minus 128.6 Fahrenheit).
"We finished at night and the plane was to fly the next day
so it was very tense," Vasilyev said. "It is very, very
difficult work. Every centimetre is a step towards something new
By contrast, the U.S. and British missions will drill with
hot water from melted glacier ice that is filtered and UV
radiated, which they say is environmental safer.
"The other reason we use it is it's quick," Siegert said.
Where as Russia spent years mechanically chewing through
thick ice crystals to reach Lake Vostok, Siegert says it will
take his team three days to melt down to lake Ellsworth.
The British expedition will then immediately deploy a probe
into the lake to collect samples of the water columns and of the
bottom sediment. It will have only 24-36 hours to run research
before the drill hole freezes up again.
Lukin, however, said he has his doubts over the technology -
concerns Russia may put to the U.S. and British missions at the
next international panel of the Scientific Committee on
Antarctic Research (SCAR) in June.
"Imagine the ancient water of Lake Ellsworth: It is
absolutely untouched. Maybe there is life there and a pot of
boiling water is poured in," Lukin said.
"Do we want to study micro-biodiversity or microbe soup?"
In the future, Russian researchers also plan to explore Lake
Vostok with a submersible, he said.
The space exploration metaphors are not incidental. Studies
of Antarctica's subglacial lakes also offer insights into the
search for life beyond Earth, both in terms of technology, such
as drilling and contamination controls, as well as how life
evolves and what makes for habitable environments.
"Space is very much an integral part of the subglacial lake
programme as a next step," said microbiologist David Pearce with
the British Antarctic Survey.
Scientists say they suspect the Antarctic waters are
supersaturated with oxygen and other gases and may be home to
bacteria and single-celled microorganisms called archea.
They say that even if the dark waters under Antarctic prove
barren, it will be a cutting-edge discovery: The only known
sterile place on the planet.
"It is learning about the limits of the terrestrial
biosphere," said astrobiologist Charles Cockell of the Open
"Ultimately who gets the samples really doesn't matter."
(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Elizabeth
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