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Three expeditions – one American, one British and one Russian – launched late last year to drill deep beneath the surface of Antarctica, where sub-glacial lakes are thought to hold undiscovered microbial life forms that can withstand extreme conditions, and may provide clues to what life could have been like in the distant past on other planets in the solar system.
The American research expedition, named Wissard – for "Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling," the location on Antarctica where its scientists plan to drill – is thought to have the best chance among the three to recover microbes living in the deep, dark, cold lakes, where no sunlight can penetrate.
Their existence hasn't been proven yet. "We don't know, there are going to be surprises," John C. Priscu of Montana State University told the New York Times in an interview from McMurdo Station, the American scientific base on Antarctica.
Still, he added, "10 years of circumstantial evidence” suggest that "there should be a viable microbial community that’s living in the dark and the cold." The Antarctic lakes are thought to hold "whole ecosystems that have never really been looked at," added Robin Bell, a research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Because Antarctica has only two seasons – winter and summer, which lasts from November until March – the window of opportunity for scientists to reach the underground lakes and gather samples will end in about a month.
Temperatures at the research stations now generally hover between 0 and 2 degrees Fahrenheit; when Antarctica's winter season arrives, temperatures plunge to 50 degrees below zero and colder.
On Christmas Day last year, technical problems forced the 12-person research team at the British expedition station in West Antarctica to call off its effort to reach Lake Ellsworth, buried some two miles below the surface.
The team was using a complex drilling technique that involves drilling down into the ice using melted water, which is heated to 190 degrees. Malfunctions on the drill sensors stopped their work at about 1,000 feet below the surface.
Whether any of the expeditions find life or not, each will have been worth the effort and expense, Professor Martin Siegert told the Guardian (U.K.) newspaper. If no microbial life is found in the deep lakes, which remain liquid thanks to their thick ice sheets and heat rising up from the Earth's crust, that means researchers could have found the limits at which life can survive.
"We are about to explore the unknown and I am very excited that our mission will advance our scientific understanding of Antarctica's hidden world," said Siegert, one of the researchers with the British Antarctic Survey, before the British effort was called off.
"We are working round the clock in a cold, demanding and extreme location – it's testing our own personal endurance, but it is entirely worth it."
Life in Antarctica
The Dry Valley region of Antarctica, seen in January 2009. (Monaco Palace/Getty Images)