Scientists know that ice covered the lakes, two of some 150 bodies of water below Antarctica's icy surface, more than 400,000 years before humans existed. Any microbes living there can survive total darkness, high pressure, near-freezing temperatures, high acidity and oxygen debt — and, as such, possibly possess never-before-seen biology. "It could be like a super-Galápagos," Siegert says.
"Given that we've found microbial life in other environments thought too harsh to support living things, such as seismic vents in the ocean floor, it would be surprising if we don't find something living in these lakes," says Mahlon Kennicutt, president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, a nongovernmental advisory body. Past discoveries of such microbes have led to the development of better artificial sweeteners and key enzymes used in DNA research, among other things.
Drilling into Vostok has been difficult. The ice at the lake's perimeter consists of extremely hard crystals of up to five feet long, and friction on the crystals from the drill melts a layer of water that causes the bit to slip, slowing progress. "No one had ever encountered ice like this before," explains Valery Lukin, director of the Russian expedition. This December, Lukin's team will drill to the cusp of the lake, after which they will replace the kerosene antifreeze in the hole with inert silicon oil (concern that the kerosene could contaminate the lake has stalled the project in the past). Next year, they will pierce the lake so that water flows back into the hole, which they will allow to freeze and then remove for analysis a year later.
The U.K. team has refined its equipment to better cut the ice and preserve the lake. They plan to carve through the ice with a jet of 200°F water melted from ice extracted from the hole itself. The water, filtered twice to remove any bacteria or viruses from the outside, also sterilizes the equipment. But, Siegert says, it's impossible to do this type of research without leaving some mark: "It's like leaving footprints on the moon." Although his crew won't strike water until two years after the Russians do, he believes that his mission's sample-collecting phase will ultimately provide the more valuable data. The team will lower a pair of probes into the lake to capture video and retrieve water and sediment samples — and any microbes in them.
Of course, the groups might not find anything, but that's what makes drilling into this vast, completely unexplored realm so exciting. "We've never sampled this water, so we have no idea what's down there," Kennicutt says. "But it is becoming clear that Antarctica is a very dynamic place."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.