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.”

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter make a mad 320-metre, 75-step dash to work
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK edition of wedding show forced to recast after wave of drop-outs
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Top conservatoire offers ‘groundbreaking’ arts degree

Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
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

Teaching Assistants

£50 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing ...

Supply Teachers needed in Stowmarket

£1034496 - £1516224 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The Job:Randstad ...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week