On Wednesday, February 8, 2012, Russian scientists announced they had reached a subglacial lake under Antarctica named Lake Vostok, which is located in the central part of the continent, approximately 800 miles East of the South Pole. This ancient freshwater lake was buried under 12,365 feet of ice, and is believed to have been cut off from the atmosphere for at least 14 million years. Scientists hope to learn about early life on Earth from this ancient lake, but they also hope to gain insight into what kind of life might exist in similar conditions elsewhere in the universe. The Washington Post explains:
Similarly, astrobiologist Dale Andersen of the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe told Discovery News, “The real value is that it helps us learn how to explore these kinds of environments better. It opens up your imagination for how to explore these kinds of environments, whether it’s on Earth or Europa.”
Many scientists see Vostok as not only a last frontier on Earth but also a potential gold mine for learning about possible conditions on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Encedadus. Each is covered by a thick shell of ice with liquid water below, warmed by either the inner heat of the moon or by tidal forces.
Scientists hope that data from Vostok will provide valuable information that will help in designing equipment to look for life beyond Earth. But according to Discovery News, a water sample will not be able to be retrieved for at least another year. The drilling process took more than two decades to complete, so I imagine scientists can handle one more year of waiting.