London: 12 British scientists are about to embark on a gruelling expedition to the Antarctic in a quest to uncover a lost world frozen beneath the ice for hundreds of thousands of years.
Their search for microbial lifeforms will take them to the darkest depths of an Antarctic lake that has been buried under three kilometres of ice.
Later this year, the team will start drilling through the thick ice sheet of West Antarctica to retrieve samples of water and mud from Lake Ellsworth, one of about 150 subglacial lakes in the frozen continent.
The pioneering expedition, which is led by the British Antarctic Survey and is being closely monitored by NASA as a template for a future space mission to an ice-bound moon of Jupiter, is one of the most ambitious attempts ever to find “extremophile” microbes living in the harshest conditions.
Scientists believe that if life does exist in the lake, it has been isolated for up to half a million years. Although no sunlight has ever penetrated the lake during this time, microbes could be living off other sources of chemical energy.
Lake Ellsworth exists because geothermal heat from the ground melts the underside of the ice sheet, leading to liquid water gathering in a subglacial valley the size of Lake Windermere, hermetically sealed from the atmosphere by the ice sheet sitting on top of it.
Planning the 8-million-pound mission has been a logistical and engineering nightmare, involving the transport of 100 tonnes of equipment to one of the remotest places on the planet where summer temperatures hover around -25C.
“This is an incredibly exciting and terrifying time for us. There is nothing small about what we are doing, the scale is phenomenal,” the Independent quoted s, the mission’s programme manager, as saying.
“This time last year a small ‘advance party’ transported nearly 70 tonnes of equipment 16,000km from the UK to the drilling site. One year later, we will ship another 26 tonnes of equipment so we can complete stage two of this challenging field mission.
“We set foot on the ice again in October and hope to bring samples to the surface in December 2012,” Hill said.
The team of 12 men consists of four scientists, five engineers, a programme manager, a camp manger (who does the cooking) and a cameraman to record everything for the media.