Russians Claim To Have Punched Through To Antarctic 'Subglacial Lake'

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One week after pausing with about 40 feet to go, Russian scientists today announced that they have successfully drilled through two miles of ice to reach Lake Vostok — a body of water the size of New Jersey that hasn't been touched for millions of years.

The Google translation from Russian on this webpage is a little rough, but you can see that the team says the breakthrough came over the weekend.

Now, as The New York Times reports, the Russians say that an initial spurt of water that rose up from the lake has frozen in the drill hole — as expected. It's likely that water has been contaminated with some of the chemicals used during the drilling. The plan is to return next December and only then draw clean water from the lake.

As NPR's Richard Harris and others have reported, the drilling has been going on for about many years. Scientists are eager to see if anything might be living in the lake and might add to evolutionary science.

Lake Vostok is warmed by geothermal energy. According to The Associated Press, "scientists from other nations hope to follow up this discovery with similar projects. American and British teams are drilling to reach their own subglacial Antarctic lakes."

Update at 3:30 p.m. ET. The Russians Essentially Stuck A Straw Down There; If Anything's Living, It's Likely A Microbe:

"The real goal of the Russians was to pop a hole in that was kind of like a straw," says Robin Bell, a research scientist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. She spoke this afternoon to NPR's Audie Cornish.

The idea is that it will "be like they're sucking on the straw and lake water would come rushing up and none of the contaminants would go in," she said.

Next, when Spring arrives in Antarctica, the Russians have "set it up so they can get a fresh sample of lake water ... when they drill into that frozen straw." They will also "drop in strings of instruments."

As for what, if anything, is living down there: "What we're most likely to find is little microbes who've figured out how to exist in a really isolated, low energy environment," Bell said. And if microbes are down there, studying them might tell us something about the likelihood of life on the moons of other planets.

More from Audie's conversation with Bell is due on today's All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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