US LEADS RACE TO FIND LIFE UNDER ANTARCTICA

Fox News on January 18, 2013, reported that the United States, Great Britain and Russia are facing off – in Antarctica. Excerpts below:

A trio of teams from the three countries have spent years planning, drilling and digging in a race to reach one of a handful of freshwater lakes buried up to a mile and a half beneath Antarctica’s trillion tons of ice, spring-fed lakes warmed by the Earth below and sheathed by thick ice above. The studies hope to find new life forms in the pitch dark, freezing water that has never seen sunlight.

“About a week ago, the U.S. made a historic traverse: We took 13 tractors and 15 people and pulled our entire field camp about 800 miles to the site. And that’s never been done.” An LC-30 Hercules plane brought construction and drilling crews to the site two days, battling the elements all the way.

A team of engineers and technicians spent nearly two years building a hot-water drill capable of melting through 2,500 feet of ice in just days. It blasts a pressurized hot water jet at up to fifty gallons a minute, a rate equivalent to eight hundred 8 ounce glasses per minute.

The drill will remove cells and particles larger than eight one millionths of an inch, and kill any remaining cells with a powerful dose of germicidal UV radiation. All drill parts and scientific tools entering the borehole are pre-cleaned with hydrogen peroxide and, finally, go through a microbe-killing chamber.

The WISSARD drill, along with fuel, field laboratories, workshops, computerized control centers, and scientific instrumentation arrived at the Lake January 12.

Ironically, in one of the coldest locations on Earth, a “hot” spell this week left planes mired in mud and put a temporary halt on travel. But it is summer, after all, and it’s still cold by normal standards. Temperatures hovered between 15 and 25 degrees Fahrenheit this week. When winter strikes, they plunge to -100 Fahrenheit and below.

“It’s like exploring another planet,” said biogeochemist Jeff Severinghaus, a WISSARD scientist who is working with biologists to discover how life obtains energy in the dark and cold extremes of a subglacial lake. “We don’t know the fundamentals, like whether there is any dissolved oxygen in the lake water.”

Lake Whillans was only discovered in 2007, with the aid of a NASA satellite that studies the characteristics of the ice sheet, measuring thickness, composition, and so on. Along with it, they found a network of under-ice plumbing to rival anything on the planet, a system of lakes, rivers and streams that never see sunlight.

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