This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

7Jan/11

A glimpse into an untouched world

Remember when everybody got all excited about that "astrobiology discovery" a few months ago?  It may not quite have been the alien contact we all hoped for, but it certainly gave us an interesting glimpse into the possibilities for life that our universe affords us.  Well, we're (hopefully) about to gain another piece of information along those same lines.

Lake Vostok is a subterranean body of water in the heart of Antarctica.  As you may imagine, such a place is generally not well-traveled...so much so, in fact, that it is speculated that this pool of water hasn't had any contact with the outside world in around 14 million years!

Lake Vostok's location in Antarctica

Such a unique and isolated environment means that there are probably all kinds of cool things we can learn from it (especially  about extremophiles), but it also makes it exceedingly difficult to analyze without tainting the very environment we hope to learn about.

For many years, scientists have held off from drilling into Lake Vostok because of the possibility of polluting it with the outside world.  However, they now have a technique that's supposed to get the job done with little threat to the pristine pool of water.

The plan is to drill down towards the pool, but to stop drilling just at the edge of the lake.  Rather than entering this pool of water with equipment and robotics, the scientists will stop altogether, allowing the water pressure from the lake itself to push the drill back towards the surface and fill the hole with its own water.  After a short time, this water will then freeze, once again sealing the lake off from the outside world.  It is from this newly-formed ice that samples will be taken in a year's time.

The final phase of drilling is set to begin in a few days.  If all goes well then we should be learning quite a bit about how organisms can survive in an incredibly extreme environment like the one harbored by this giant body of water.  Who knows what glimpses into the nature of life we'll be able to take from what is found within the lake's pristine ice.

Keep your eyes on this project in the coming months, it promises to be an interesting one.

some general information via New Scientist although I got the original story from Wired

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