Lake Ellsworth drilling: First images emerge

Drilling camp panorama

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New pictures from Antarctica capture the moment that a search for life under the ice-sheet finally got under way.

The project to investigate Lake Ellsworth involves using a hot-water drill, aiming for waters isolated for up to half a million years.

The first stage of the operation was to fire up the boiler that is being used to melt vast quantities of snow.

According to project manager Chris Hill, "this was not as straightforward as we would have liked".

Borehole hose carried to wellhead

"The main burner unit blew a circuit board, the boiler kept overā€pressurising when it fired and we then found that it was not burning as cleanly as we had been expecting."

Eventually the problems were fixed and the team went on to melt 180,000 litres of snow, which produced 60,000 litres of water.

Once the right amount of water had been produced, it was then passed through a series of four filters and an ultra-violet light chamber to ensure complete sterility.

Writing on the EllsworthLIVE blog, Chris Hill said: "We are now committed, having gone past the point of no return.

"If anything stops working now, water could freeze in the pipes and the whole programme could come to a halt. So please keep us in your thoughts as we work round the clock for the next seven to 10 days."

The next task is to melt a cavity 300m under the ice to act as a water storage system so that the pressure in the bore-hole can be equalised.

Attaching borehole hose to wellhead

Lake Ellsworth is not only below sea level but is also under extreme pressure from the ice-sheet so the challenge is to ensure that when the lake is reached, there is no sudden surge of lake water to the surface.

The water in the cavity will help balance the pressure and allow the team to ensure that melt-water from the drilling does not enter the lake and vice versa.

The drilling phase of the operation is planned to last five days. Once complete, the bore-hole is predicted to remain open for no more than 24 hours - a narrow window for the sampling devices to be deployed.

The first samples of water are scheduled to reach the surface early next week and should answer a fundamental question: can any form of life survive in the extreme conditions of pitch darkness and immense pressure?

Cameraman Pete Bucktrout of the British Antarctic Survey is on location to record the operation.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • Comment number 79.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    It's perhaps worth remembering that Antarctica wasn't always covered in ice. Any life found in this lake may just be the descendants of life that existed when it had no ice. It would be interesting to see how evolution has changed any organisms that lived before the ice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Who can tell what unforseen consequences may come of this perhaps some slimey alien thing will jump out like The Blob to menace mankind's existance. Makes for great science fiction writing. But even if they find living creatures would they be self evolved or just adapted from the surface? Whatever but it's more interesting than that bot mucking about on Mars not finding anything definitive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Given the depth and extreme pressure that this lake is under, has anyone considered the consequence of releasing that pressure?
    Could it destabilize the ice sheet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    @73 mark

    If we find life anywhere nearby it might well be related too. There are enough bits knocked off Earth by impacts to drop a few microbes anywhere in the solar system. We know some microbes can survive space conditions indefinately.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Seeing what equipment is needed and what they have had to go through to drill a small hole in an ice covered lake on the Earth, I wonder how they ever hope to drill through the 100+km thick ice on Europa.

    They would most likely have to use a laser mounted drilling rig to simplify the rig. An boil the water into steam. Not sure how they would handle the pressure issues through.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    With all life on Earth related we are just looking for relatives, It would be nice to find out that life began twice. We may find it out a bit, maybe Mars. Now that would be news.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I bet they find our telly's remote controll I have searched everywhere else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    #19 I am a fellow Christian, but I find this search for life fascinating. This life has been completely isolated for 500 million years, and we are about to find out a complete unknown about the life God "created" (which you could perceive how you like).

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    mmmm! On further reflection and considering some of the more jocular cautions regarding Predators v Aliens and Things! On a serious note there could of course be some nasty viruses down there, I hope the sterile containment stuff works both ways. Or should I stop watching The Walking Dead!

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    No way do I see this being a sterile environment. Implications will be huge in terms of probability of life elsewhere other than earth and even within our solar system. Liquid water is the key! Sadly it will not undermine the god botherer's seemingly endless appetite to destroy each other and anyone else who believes an alternative explanation of how we got here!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    giovanna :

    Won't help us in any way??? ARE YOU KIDDING????????? Your science teachers were patently useless ! Either that or you skipped class!

    EVERY piece of information science accumulates helps us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    64 MacTurk
    "Why does every website/comment section devoted to science always attract[...] 'religionists'?"

    To be fair, only one person brought up religion, and since then about 50% of the comments have been self-satisfied replies to that person telling them they're wrong.
    Just ignore the comment and rate it down, stop being drawn into tedious debates that have nothing to do with the subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    @19,Poor,sad,deluded individual you are.When will you religious fanatics get a grip,science is fact based knowledge gained by exploration & experiment,you my friend are the one who is looking for something that doesn't exist,you believe what you want,but don't try to ram it down the throats of others.Remember this,religious ideology is the largest single cause of conflict & unrest on the planet

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Why can't we just leave this lake alone? Why polute it with a drill - it's doing fine as it is - the lake does not want to be disturbed

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Why does every website/comment section devoted to science always attract the noisy, booming, empty vessels, aka 'religionists'?

    They never have anything to offer, as their comments are always about their obsession, and have no relationship to the topic, or, mostly, reality....

    Is it some undiscovered underlying principle of the universe?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    2 Hours ago
    @19 "to look for something that doesn't exist"

    Quite possibly the funniest and most ironic statement I've read all year.
    Must have had lessons from Donald Rumsfeld

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    2 Hours ago
    Hey stop now before its too late. Has no-one watched Alien V Predator?
    Oh yeah no-one has cos its so bad. Still, don't say I didn't warn you!
    That was science fiction, I'd be more woried about the "Thing"
    that was already there and in Black & White, so it must be real :p

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    #50 zelod - people indoctrinate their children all the time with a whole heap of unhealthier influences such as tellytubbies. Religion gives a framework for moral living that teaches them how to get along with others in a simple and meaningful way.

    Atheism? Maybe you mean humanism. But my point was that getting rid of religion is futile because it won't happen even if you force it on people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    "The money spent on this expidition should be spent on helping people and building churches and so on. No wasting it away by funding people to melt ice to look for something that doesn't exist"

    l thought churches celebrated something that doesnt exist.


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