March 8, 2009

British team to explore Antarctic lake

British scientists have been given the go-ahead to drill through the Antarctic ice sheet into Lake Ellsworth, which has been sealed off for thousands of years.

The main goal of the project is to determine whether there is life in the lake, The Independent reported. The lake, one of about 150 that have been found under the ice sheet, has been covered for at least 400,000 years -- and possibly form as long as 2 million years.

It is a dark, cold place that has been sealed from the outside world and it's likely to contain unique forms of life, said Professor Martin Siegert of Edinburgh University. This is a benchmark in polar exploration: our team will be the first to explore this ancient lake. Microbiologists think deep-water sub-glacial lakes are unique extreme environments where unusual microbes might adapt and survive. These environments may be the closest analogues on Earth to Europa, which has a thick icy crust above a liquid ocean.

Europa -- the sixth of Jupiter's known satellites and the fourth largest -- is slightly smaller than the moon.

The British team has been given permission to drill and expect to begin in the Antarctic summer of 2012-2013.