NASA Sub Helps Explore Depths Of Antarctica
March 1, 2013

NASA Sub Helps Explore Depths Of Antarctica

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

NASA is best known for its explorations away from this planet, but the US space agency has a whole other program aimed at investigating the depths of this planet.

One NASA researcher from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California joined up with an international Antarctic expedition last month to try and explore an unexplored aquatic environment on Earth. Alberto Behar used a small robotic sub about the size of a baseball bat, known as the Micro-Submersible Lake Exploration Device, to get a peak at these extreme environments.

The Micro-Submersible Lake Exploration Device is equipped with hydrological chemical sensors and a high-resolution imaging system. Its instruments and cameras are capable of capturing the geology, hydrology and chemical characteristics of the environment.

"This is the first instrument ever to explore a subglacial lake outside of a borehole," Behar said. "It's able to take us places that are inaccessible by any other instruments in existence."

The international team, Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, has a mission to access subglacial Lake Whillans, which sits over 2,000 feet below sea level in West Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf. The 20-square-mile lake is so far down; sunlight is unable to reach the waters, which keep a temperature of 31 degrees Fahrenheit.

The WISSARD team used specialized tools to get clean samples from the lake water and used video to take a survey of the floor. With this information, the team will be able to have a better idea of subglacial biology, climate history and modern ice sheet behavior.

Behar's small submarine is designed to work at depths up to three-quarters of a mile, within a range of 0.6 miles from the entry point in the ice to reach the lake. The Micro-Submersible Lake Exploration Device is able to transmit real-time high-resolution images, as well as deliver salinity, temperature and depth measurement data to the surface through fiber-optic cables.

The team found the lake water contained living bacteria, which is a discovery that could hold important implications for the search for life in other places in the universe.

Lake Whillans is one of more than 300 large bodies of water scientists know exist underneath Antarctica's ice sheet. These bodies of water are kept liquid by geothermal heat and pressure, and are part of a vast and dynamic hydrological network operating deep beneath the ice sheet.

Antarctica's waters may help provide invaluable insight into the habitability of other moons found in our solar system, including Jupiter's Europa. This moon has large volumes of liquid water beneath its icy crust, and astrobiologists believe it could hold promise in finding extra-terrestrial microorganisms.

The southernmost continent on Earth contains some of the harshest conditions this planet has to offer. Just recently, an ambitious 68 year old explorer name Sir Ranulph “Ran” Fiennes attempted to be the first human to trek across Antarctica during the winter. The "World's Greatest Living Explorer," as referred to by the Guinness World Records, had to forfeit his attempt to trek the 2,000 miles across the frozen continent due to frostbite.