Vostok: Looking for Life Beneath an Antarctic Glacier

In what may be the world’s largest lake ever seen by a human eye, the search begins

Imagine for a moment that you are a strange device called a cryobot. You are a glint in an ocean of snow. You plunge into a hole in the Antarctic ice sheet, drilled by boiling water, and sink rapidly nearly two and a half miles to the bottom of the ice shaft. The pressure crushes in on you in the utter darkness as you purify yourself with a hydrogen peroxide rinse to kill off any surface microbes. At last you reach your destination, your cargo door opens and you release a smaller probe, a hydrobot. Its propeller revs, and it disappears into the gloom on a mission to explore one of our planet's last great virgin territories: Lake Vostok.

One of at least 76 subglacial lakes recently discovered on that southernmost continent, Vostok is an intriguing proposition for scientists as they ponder how to get down to and explore its stygian depths. This lake, which is capped by ice but does not freeze solid because of heat rising from the Earth's interior, is especially tantalizing because new evidence suggests that life just might exist in its depths. Even more significant, planetary scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory say that Vostok bears an uncanny resemblance to the Jovian moon Europa, which recent spacecraft images suggest is covered by an ocean topped by a rind of ice. JPL scientists are already designing the technology that would one day explore lakes such as Vostok and the ocean on Europa.

Join science writer Richard Stone and learn more about how scientists plan to do this and what life is like working at the Russian's Vostok Research Station. "The weather and tales of hardship have given the Vostochniki, those who work through the long, dark winter there, a reputation for perseverance," writes Stone. The Russians have drilled into the ice sheet, assembling data on the history of the Earth's climate over the past 420,000 years. They've stopped now so as not to contaminate the lake. They are waiting for the right technology to take them the rest of the 400 feet to the lake. It's only a matter of time before we'll get a peek at this lost world.

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