Could life have withstand the deepest, darkest and most isolated conditions for more than a million years?
Antarctica remains a mysterious continent that has fascinated scientists for decades. What secrets are hidden beneath the thick ice? Could ancient lie-forms be frozen deep below the coldest continent?
After 16 years of planning a 12-man team of British scientists, engineers and support staff will make the 16,000 km journey from the UK to go deep into the heart of the frozen continent to collect samples of water and sediments from an ancient lake buried beneath three kilometers of ice.
Their quest is to reveal vital secrets about the Earth's past climate and discover life forms that may live in subglacial Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The journey begins in October.
For the past three years a team of engineers from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have pushed the boundaries of polar
technology to design and build a state-of-the-art titanium water-sampling probe and a bespoke sediment corer capable of being lowered down a three kilometer
borehole in the ice made by a custom-built hot-water drill.
To add to the challenge every piece of technology has to be sterilised to space industry standards
to ensure this unexplored lake remains pristine.
After setting up the science camp and preparing all the equipment to start the mission,
the team will have just 24 hours to sample the lake before the borehole re-freezes and re-seals the lake.
Typical working conditions will be in temperatures a chilly minus 25°C and wind speeds averaging 25 knots.
The team of science and engineering experts has been brought together by the mission's Principal Investigator Martin Siegert from the University of Bristol.
Mysterious Antartica has fascinated scientists for ages. Image credit: Ellsworth.org
"For the first time we are standing at the threshold of making new discoveries about a part of our planet that has never been explored in this way.
Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated for up to half a million years is an exciting prospect, and the lake-bed sediments have the potential
to paint a picture of the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in a way that we haven't seen before. The team's mission is to get into the deep field
and bring back clean, valid samples of lake water and lake-bed sediments, which can be brought back to the UK for in depth analysis."
A new ambitious Antarctica mission begins. Image credit: Ellsworth.org
Programme Manager Chris Hill from the British Antarctic Survey says:
"This time last year a small 'advance party' transported nearly 70 tonnes of equipment 16,000 km from the UK to the drilling site. Now, one year later, we will ship another 26 tonnes of equipment on to the continent so that we can complete stage two of this challenging field mission. We set foot on the ice again in October and hope to bring samples to the surface in December 2012 - an historic moment we have all been waiting for."
Professor John Parnell from the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen says:
"For years we have speculated that new forms of microbial life could have evolved in the unique habitats of Antarctica's subglacial lakes. When we get the lake water samples back to the UK our analysis will focus on investigating the water for evidence of chemical compounds that microbes - tiny organisms - living in the lake might have produced.
"Finding evidence of such compounds would show us that if life can withstand even the deepest, darkest and most isolated conditions for more than a million years,
then it has the ability to exist anywhere - and by that I mean not just on Earth.
We will use advanced pieces of kit that allow us to analyse extremely small volumes of water - just a few millilitres - and is highly sensitive to
the existence of any chemical compounds which may be present."
By December 2012 the team will have prepared the field camp and will begin the 100 hours of non-stop, hot-water drilling required to create the borehole through to Lake Ellsworth. They will then have 24 hours to deploy the water and sediment-sampling equipment. During this process the team will use a bespoke 1.5 MW boiler to melt ice to provide 90,000 litres of water for the hot-water drill. The drill will pressurise the water to 2,000 psi and then pump this water at 210 litres per minute through a 3.5km bespoke hose to create a 360mm wide borehole.
Hopefully the scientists will be able to unlock some of Antarctica's many secrets.
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