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Friday, 14 October 2011

British Antarctic Survey engineering team heads to Antarctica to explore hidden lake

British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
Oct 11, 2011

Next week a British engineering team from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) heads off to Antarctica for the first stage of an ambitious scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from a lake buried beneath three kilometres of solid ice. This extraordinary research project, at the frontier of exploration, will yield new knowledge about the evolution of life on Earth and other planets, and will provide vital clues about the Earth’s past climate.

Transporting nearly 70 tonnes of equipment the ‘advance party’ of four engineers from BAS will make a journey almost 16,000km from the UK to subglacial Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) - one of the most remote and hostile environments on Earth with −25°C temperatures.

Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Programme Manager Chris Hill is part of the team. He says,

“Our task is to prepare the way for the ‘deep-field’ research mission that will take place next year. In October 2012 we will return to the site with a team of 10 scientists and engineers to make a three kilometre bore hole through the ice using state-of-the-art hot water drilling technology. We will then lower a titanium probe to measure and sample the water followed by a corer to extract sediment from the lake.”

Lake Ellsworth is likely to be the first of Antarctica’s 387 known subglacial lakes to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of space-industry standard ‘clean technology’.

For years scientists have speculated that new and unique forms of microbial life could have evolved in this cold, pitch black and isolated environment. Sediments on the lake bed are likely to reveal vital clues about the history of life in the lake and the ancient history of the WAIS, including past collapse.

Dr David Pearce, Science Coordinator at BAS, is part of the team leading the ‘search for life’ in the lake water and will go to Lake Ellsworth for stage two of the mission. He says:

“Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments. If we find nothing this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet.”
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