From: Alissa de Carbonnel, Reuters, MOSCOW
Published February 5, 2011 09:57 AM

Russia poised to breach mysterious Antarctic lake

For 15 million years, an icebound lake has remained sealed deep beneath Antarctica's frozen crust, possibly hiding prehistoric or unknown life. Now Russian scientists are on the brink of piercing through to its secrets.

"There's only a bit left to go," Alexei Turkeyev, chief of the Russian polar Vostok Station, told Reuters by satellite phone. His team has drilled for weeks in a race to reach the lake, 3,750 meters (12,000 ft) beneath the polar ice cap, before the end of the brief Antarctic summer.

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It was here that the coldest temperature ever found on Earth -- minus 89.2 Celsius (minus 128.6 Fahrenheit) -- was recorded.

With the rapid onset of winter, scientists will be forced to leave on the last flight out for this season, on Feb 6.

"It's minus 40 (Celsius) outside," Turkeyev said. "But whatever, we're working. We're feeling good. There's only 5 meters left until we get to the lake so it'll all be very soon."

Scientists suspect the lake's depths will reveal new life forms, show how the planet was before the ice age and how life evolved. It could offer a glimpse at what conditions for life exist in the similar extremes of Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa.

"It's like exploring an alien planet where no one has been before. We don't know what we'll find," said Valery Lukin of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St Petersburg, which oversees the expedition.

A centenary since the first expeditions to the South Pole, the discovery of Antarctica's hidden network of subglacial lakes via satellite imagery in the late 1990s has sparked a new exploratory fervor among scientists the world over.

U.S. and British explorers are on the trail of Russia's scientists with missions to probe other buried lakes, some of the last unexplored reaches of the planet.

Photo shows drilling site.  Credit:  http://academic.emporia.edu/aberjame/ice/lec11/lec11.htm

Article continues: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/04/us-russia-antarctica-lake-idUSTRE7135MB20110204

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