British scientists flew into Antarctica at the weekend to begin an extraordinary search for life in a stretch of water the size of Lake Windermere buried under three kilometres of solid ice.
The researchers join a team of engineers who have set up camp on the West Antarctic ice sheet, where the December sun shines night and day, and temperatures plunge far below freezing.
In the coming days, the team will use a sterile hot water drill to bore down to the subglacial Lake Ellsworth and retrieve samples of water and sediments that may have been isolated from the rest of the world for a million years.
Should life be found lurking in the depths of the lake, it will have evolved in isolation for at least 100,000 years, but probably much longer. Scientists want to know first whether life can endure such harsh environments. If it can, the next question is how.
The answers will further our understanding of life on Earth, and inform searches for life elsewhere in the solar system, such as in the ice-capped ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa. [Read on]