What lies beneath? Antarctic mission to find life isolated deep under the ice

Extraordinary journey may reveal unknown life forms cut off from outside world – and pave a way to Jupiter

Twelve British scientists are about to embark on a gruelling expedition to the Antarctic, sleeping and living packed together in small tents for months on end, testing their endurance of the conditions – and one another – 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.

The British team will later this year start to drill 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 £8m 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,” said Chris Hill, the mission’s programme manager.

“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,” Mr Hill told the British Science Festival in Aberdeen. “We set foot on the ice again in October and hope to bring samples to the surface in December 2012.”

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.

They will sleep in three four-man tents specially designed as “weather havens”. There will also be a living room tent for eating and cooking and an “office tent” at the drilling site.

Everything taken to the site will be shipped out again, even the human waste, to keep the area pristine. The men will have books, magazines, a DVD player and internet access to entertainment them for the two a half months of the exploration.

“Anyone with strength enough to go cross-country skiing will be able to do so, but to be honest most people at the end of the day are so exhausted they just want to eat and go to bed,” said Hill.

The team has been hand-picked and psychologically matched to make sure they get on with one another, but small arguments are almost inevitable, Mr Hill said. “Even the most good-natured person will throw their toys out of the pram because the conditions are so tough, But I feel we have a good mix of men and they should get along.”

The equipment is transported by sea and cargo plane, with the final leg of the journey over the ice made by a train of heavy snow tractors. Engineers are on schedule to begin erecting the drilling rig by the end of November and hope to drill down through the ice in the second week of December.

The water and mud samples will be brought to the surface and provisionally analysed on site, with the first scientific results coming just before Christmas, said Professor Martin Siegert of Bristol Univeristy, the mission’s principal investigator.

“If there is life in the lake we will know pretty much immediately and we will tell people about it. For the first time we are standing at the threshold of making new discoveries about a part of our planet that has never been explored in this way,” Professor Siegert said.

“Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated for up to half a million years is an exciting prospect.”

The drill consists of a high-pressure jet of water heated to 100C so that it melts its way through the ice. Once the drilling begins, the engineers cannot stop until the mission is complete as the empty borehole will freeze over after 24 hours, Professor Siegert said.

Enormous efforts have gone into sterilising the drilling equipment to prevent microbial contamination of the lake from the surface. Even the drilling water used in the high-pressure jet will be filtered to pharmaceutical standards before it is injected into the borehole, he said.

Once the drill has reached the lake, it will be pulled back up through the borehole to allow the scientific instruments to be lowered into the water. The first will consist of a five-metre long probe for sampling the lake, while the second instrument is a sediment corer for taking mud samples from the lake floor.

“The simple question we will be posing is: could life adapt to these extreme environments. It is only microbes that would have any chance of living in these extreme conditions,” said Professor John Purnell of Aberdeen University. “Finding evidence of such compounds would show us that if life can withstand even the deepest, darkest and most isolated conditions for more than a million years, then it has the ability to exist anywhere – and by that I mean not just on Earth.”

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution