The Lost World of Lake Vostok
BBC2 9:00pm Thursday 26th October 2000
NARRATOR (DILLY BARLOW): It sometimes
feels as if every corner of our planet has been explored, but Earth
still has one secret left, locked away in the heart of the great
Antarctic wilderness. These men are walking on top of 4 vertical
kilometres of ice, but it’s what is underneath this ice that has
turned this remote part of Antarctica into one of the hottest pieces
of scientific real estate in the world, for beneath their feet lies
a vast, mysterious lake. No-one has ever seen it and for a long
time, no-one even knew it existed.
PROF. JOHN PRISCU (Montana State University): Lake Vostok is so
exciting to scientists because it’s the last unexplored frontier
on our planet.
DR FRANK CARSEY (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory): This is a very
large, dark, cold body of water that has been doing its own thing
for at least 3 million years, possibly 30 million years.
DR. ROBIN BELL (Columbia University): It’s just such an extreme
place. There’s almost nowhere on the Earth left that we know so
NARRATOR: But the most enticing prospect of all is what scientists
might find living down there. This unvisited frontier could help
explain how life began on Earth. It may even hold the key to finding
life on other planets. 50 years ago no-one believed that water could
remain liquid in the freezing conditions of Antarctica’s ice sheet.
It seemed to defy the laws of physics but then the Russians built
a scientific base in the middle of this hostile land and it was
here that conventional wisdom was overturned. Vostok Station was
established in 1957 in the coldest place on Earth. It was so remote
that to supply it required an epic 1,000 kilometre tractor journey
from the coast through some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
One of the Russian scientific aims was to measure the thickness
of the ice sheet. It was a task taken on by a young geographer,
Andrei Kapitsa, but for him, like everyone else in this intrepid
team, science took second place to survival.
PROF. ANDREI KAPITSA (Moscow State University): The best way to
warm yourself up you eat butter. A pound of butter goes in you and
suddenly you are warm again and everything is nice and it's like
drinking a glass of vodka but much better.
NARRATOR: Andrei Kapitsa suggested that the frozen Antarctic wastes
could be hiding a great secret. Flying over the Vostok area he noticed
that the ice seemed unnaturally flat. The only explanation he could
come up with was almost unthinkable.
ANDREI KAPITSA: You saw a very flat plain which we understood could
be water underneath and the middle of Antarctica could be a lake.
NARRATOR: Kapitsa believed that if the ice was thick enough it could
act like an insulating blanket preventing the Earth’s heat from
escaping. In theory, this trapped heat might melt the bottom of
the ice sheet and over time water could gather into a lake. If Kapitsa
was right there could be a secret world buried beneath the ice,
a place that no human had ever seen but most people thought the
idea was ludicrous. They believed a lake would freeze solid underneath
the Antarctic ice sheet.
ANDREI KAPITSA: Nobody would believe me, that is the tragedy of
new ideas. They are never believed at the beginning.
NARRATOR: Kapitsa needed proof. Using explosions he sent sound waves
down through the ice. Each time they hit a different substance the
waves reflected back to the surface. In theory if a lake was present
it would show up as two distinctive reflections, one from the surface
of the lake and one from the bottom. When Kapitsa looked at the
data from his explosions he discovered that the ice sheet was an
extraordinary 4 kilometres deep, thicker than anyone had believed,
but he saw no lake. Eventually Kapitsa went home to Moscow and never
visited Antarctica again. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a British
team brought the idea back to life. They were using a sophisticated
new technique - airborne radar – which could reveal the mountainous
landscape beneath the ice sheet, something that had never been seen
before. With each flight the mountains stretched on further. Then
on Christmas Day 1974 north of the Vostok Station they discovered
this. It seemed they could only be flying over water, but despite
the radar evidence the full picture of what lay beneath the ice
wasn’t fully understood until just a few years ago. Satellites orbiting
Antarctica revealed what it had been impossible to see from Earth:
the true scale of the discovery at Vostok – an enormous lake. It
was half the size of Wales. Hidden beneath Vostok Station buried
by 4 kilometres of ice was a lake over 500 metres deep. One of the
biggest lakes in the world. The massive ceiling of ice would create
a place of absolute dark and intense cold, crushed by immense pressure,
a strange and hostile other world here on Earth. It was a stunning
JOHN PRISCU: Wow.
DR CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS (British Antarctic Survey): Amazing.
ROBIN BELL: Really exciting.
NARRATOR: Scientists were tantalised. They desperately wanted to
study the lake, but they had no way of getting down into it, but
for geologists the very existence of the lake was intriguing. Robin
Bell has spent her career studying Antarctic geology.
ROBIN BELL: The thing that is driving the scientists to actually
understand how this whole lake is existing and what’s going on inside
it. The geologic setting for Lake Vostok is something we don’t find
anywhere else right now on Earth.
NARRATOR: If geologists could work out how this unique lake formed
it would help scientists understand what, if anything might be living
down there. If the lake did form when the ice melted under its insulating
blanket it would never have had any contact with the outside world.
The prospects for life would be bleak, but now there’s a new theory.
The lake may have formed before the ice came and covered it. If
this is right it increases the chances for life. The first clue
came from its shape.
ROBIN BELL: The lake is long and skinny. It’s very similar to other
long, skinny lakes on Earth. Here’s a satellite image for Lake Vostok.
If we compare it to other lakes in the Earth and look how those
lakes are formed. Here’s Lake Malawi, it’s in Central Africa. This
is in a part of Africa that’s being actively pulled apart. When
the Earth pulls apart it breaks, there are faults along the edge
of this lake and so by comparing the shapes we can say that Vostok
is probably a rift.
NARRATOR: Some geologists theorised that the Earth beneath Vostok
could have been pulled in different directions by these forces until
it split open, but it was when Robin Bell looked at the timing of
this process that she realised how old the lake could really be.
ROBIN BELL: My evidence for the timing is based on estimates of
how long it takes to form other rift lakes like that. I think the
lake formed in the last 30 million years.
NARRATOR: 30 million years ago the whole world was much warmer and
Antarctica was temperate, so if Robin Bell’s timing are correct
rain would soon start collecting in the rift and the lake that formed
would have been teeming with life. There could have been everything
from insects to fish. What happened next would have been cataclysmic.
ROBIN BELL: The world got really cold 15 million years ago and then
we know that Vostok sits right next to the biggest highland in east
Antarctica. There are big mountains, Vostok sits right here, that
ice sheet would have started forming on top of the mountains and
covered Lake Vostok very quickly.
NARRATOR: So 15 million years ago, well before the human race had
evolved, Lake Vostok would have begun to disappear beneath the ice.
As the ice built up it would have buried the lake cutting it off
from the rest of the world completely. Under the thickening roof
of ice the pressure would have mounted and the waters would have
got darker and darker.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: Lake Vostok is essentially a lost world. It’s
been lost for millions and millions of years and has been sitting
completely in isolation from all the things that have been happening
in the world around it.
NARRATOR: For biologists the challenge is how to study this lost
world. They need samples to analyse, but there are no samples from
Lake Vostok, so they can only speculate about what happened to the
life after the lake iced over.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: The plants would have disappeared very quickly
and once the plants went you lost a major source of food supply
for the more complex animals, so once, the plants would disappear
the, the animals would follow soon after and once they were gone
all that would be left in the lake would be the microbial populations
and even they would then start to thin down to the organisms that
could make the best of the limited resources left.
NARRATOR: So if anything has survived in Lake Vostok it will be
microbes. They are the magicians of survival. They have an extraordinary
ability to adapt and evolve to any conditions and what’s more, every
creature on the planet, including ourselves, evolved from microbes.
Biologists hoped that if they could find any microbes that have
adapted in isolation in Lake Vostok that it would give them some
insight into how life began and evolved on Earth.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: By going back to the microbial history in Lake
Vostok we are going to be learning more about how life evolved on
this planet. Any microbes we find in there will have had no contact
with the outside world and so we’ll be able to look at them in almost
like a laboratory setting, that here we have a test-tube that has
been closed off for millions of years and kept at a permanently
low temperature. What sort of evolution would have happened in that
time and what rate of evolution is possible under those circumstances?
NARRATOR: Biologists also think that isolation in this strange environment
could have led to the evolution of unique microbes.
JOHN PRISCU: As biologists try to understand the evolution of life
on our planet one of our primary goals is to seek and discover habitats
that have been isolated from our surroundings for millions of years.
The isolation we’ve seen in lake Vostok would, would lead a lot
of scientists to believe that there’s a lot of evolutionary distinct
forms in the lake.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: We are almost certainly going to turn up organisms
which are going to have very curious properties. These are organisms
there which, the like of which we may not have seen on this planet
JOHN PRISCU: For an Antarctic scientist like myself, polar scientist
who’s spent most of his career working in polar regions, this was,
this was the Holy Grail.
NARRATOR: If they could only get down into the lake they might find
life quite alien to Earth, but while biologists were hoping that
something strange might have survived here, the pristine isolation
that makes Lake Vostok so special was already under threat. Ironically
the threat came from science itself. From a unique project that
brings scientists from around the world to the crumbling Russian
base that sits directly on top of Lake Vostok. The project is one
of the most ambitious climatology studies ever started and it depends
on one crucial thing: drilling an ice core. The ice contains information
on the Earth’s past climate. The deeper they drilled the further
back in time they went, until they had a core over 3½ kilometres
long that could tell them how the climate changed over the past
half million years. The Russians began drilling these cores 25 years
ago, long before they knew lake Vostok was beneath them. When its
discovery was announced they realised the drill was tantalisingly
close to the lake. If they just went on drilling they could get
the one thing scientists were desperate for: a sample of Lake Vostok
water, but there was a problem. Drilling is a dirty job. At Vostok
they use 65 tons of oil-based kerosene to keep the drill hole open.
If the drill entered the lake the purest body of water on Earth
would have its first oil slick.
DR JEAN ROBERT PETIT (Vostok Ice Core Project): There is no technical
problem to drill down to 4 kilometres even to penetrate the lake,
but from a scientific point of view it would be a disaster because
the fluid, the kerosene that we used could be mixed with the water
and then we will bring some contamination, obvious contamination.
NARRATOR: Not only that, the kerosene would bring a more insidious
form of contamination. Because mixed up in the fluid a bacteria
from the environment. If these microbes enter the lake then it would
be impossible to tell which were the genuine lake microbes and which
had been introduced by the drilling fluid.
JEAN ROBERT PETIT: We do not want to penetrate the lake at least
with this technology. We should develop another technology, a clean
technology, which prevent any contamination for this, for this water.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: Contamination of Lake Vostok would be a disaster.
If this is the most pristine system of its kind on the planet, we
have an absolute need to preserve this pristine, pristine situation.
NARRATOR: So just over 100 metres above the lake the drill was brought
to a grinding halt. For the last 2 years the drills at Vostok Station
have been silent. Scientists simply don’t have the technology to
drill further without causing irreversible contamination. Meanwhile,
a dramatic new discovery was about to make Lake Vostok of enormous
importance to space research. The key lay in a series of mysterious
images from space. It all began when NASA launched the Galileo probe.
Its mission was to send back data from the planet Jupiter and its
12 orbiting moons. Scientists were intrigued by one of these moons
in particular – Europa. It was staggeringly bright and they realised
it was completely encased in ice. As the pictures came back, scientists
searched for clues to tell them what was under the ice on this remote
moon. NASA scientist Frank Carsey was one of a team studying these
FRANK CARSEY: The most intriguing images are the ones that are called
chaos. Here we have blocks of ice a few kilometres across in this
matrix of ice. For me personally this was very significant because
I had seen this before. Here is an image taken from the Arctic Ocean
on Earth and we see again irregularly shaped blocks of ice in this
matrix of smaller blocks of ice and freshly formed ice. These are
the consequence of this ice moving around on the Arctic Ocean and
if we bounce back and forth a bit between these two you will see
that we have here on Europa larger blocks, smaller blocks, exactly
the same as we have in this data from Earth.
NARRATOR: Comparing photos of the Arctic Ocean with the surface
of Europa the team came to a startling conclusion.
FRANK CARSEY: This was really a crucial point at which we felt we
were looking at Europa on ice that was floating on an ocean and
this is a very exciting prospect.
NARRATOR: It was the first time scientists had found convincing
evidence for the presence of liquid water outside our own planet.
Liquid water is the single most important prerequisite for life,
so finding an ocean on Europa presented NASA with the extraordinary
possibility that Europa could be home to extraterrestrial life.
This is what NASA had always dreamt of, but exploring this alien
world in search of life seemed an impossible task. NASA had worked
out that the ice on Europa is many kilometres thick and developing
clean technology to penetrate it would pose a completely new challenge
and then they heard about Lake Vostok.
FRANK CARSEY: Timing is everything here. As we were looking at the
pictures from Europa and realising the high likelihood that we were
looking at a planet with a shell of ice a few kilometres thick sitting
on this very deep old ocean, we also began to see results coming
back concerning Lake Vostok and Lake Vostok also is a large body
of water under several kilometres of ice and I and my colleague
realised that we had a capital opportunity here to stage explorations
to both of these very exciting places.
NARRATOR: These scientists reasoned that if they could devise technology
to explore Lake Vostok without contaminating it, that same technology
could then be used on Europa. Not only that, the possibility of
finding life in Lake Vostok took on new meaning.
FRANK CARSEY: Life in Lake Vostok can demonstrate to us that that
environment is a habitat in which microbes could thrive at Europa.
NARRATOR: Lake Vostok was about to become a step towards discovering
life beyond our planet. But there remained one crucial question:
even if scientists could explore either Lake Vostok or Europa would
they find any life there at all? Both places lacked one crucial
ingredient for life – light.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: Lake Vostok is covered by 4 kilometres of ice
and therefore not one photon of light can penetrate. Light energy
is one of the major drivers, one of the major energy sources on
this planet as far as organisms are concerned and it is not going
to be present.
NARRATOR: Nearly all the life we know relies on energy from the
Sun. At the base of the entire food chain are plants that live by
photosynthesis and we all live off them. Even under water light
is essential to life. So it would seem that in the light starved
world of Lake Vostok nothing could survive, unless of course it
has cunningly adapted to a different energy source, but other than
light what else could fuel life? A clue came from underneath a rubbish
dump in Romania. Here cave scientists stumbled across a biological
treasure trove. When these shafts were sunk a cave was discovered
20 metres below the surface, but this was no ordinary cave.
DR SERBAN SARBU (Cave Biologist): We very soon realised that in
fact this cave had never had an entrance, a natural entrance, was
never opened to the surface and this artificial shaft that we descended
was the only possible access into the system.
NARRATOR: It was like a bubble trapped in rock. Until it was broken
into nothing from the surface had got into it, perhaps for millions
of years. What they had found was a world as dark and isolated as
Lake Vostok. To begin with they found nothing out of the ordinary,
just a series of cramped tunnels. But when they arrived at a small
pool there was a surprise in store for them.
SERBAN SARBU: The first surprise that I experienced was that we
found a lot of animals present and when I say animals I think of
spiders, centipedes, wood lice.
NARRATOR: But these creatures were unlike anything he’d ever seen
before. They were all blind and many of them were almost colourless.
In total, Serban found 33 species entirely new to science. It meant
that the cave must have been cut off for millions of years to allow
the new species to evolve separately, but the surprise didn’t stop
SERBAN SARBU: Most of all what was surprising was the fact that
they are extremely active. This is really atypical for any other
cave creatures. They tend to move usually very slowly, you don’t
see them waste a lot of energy. Here in this cave they are moving
fast, they are very active, they run all over the place, that there’s
an indicator of the fact that there is a lot of energy available
NARRATOR: And yet the cave was completely sealed off from the surface.
Nothing could get through, not even rainwater and certainly not
light, so where were these creatures getting their energy from?
It seemed a mystery. Serban’s only clue was that all the creatures
lived close to the pond, so he set off to explore the underwater
passages. After a short while he came to a small air bell, a chamber
only half filled with water.
SERBAN SARBU: I had to pass through a layer of scum that was floating
on the surface of the water. It was really ugly looking yellowish
orange colour, we had really no idea what it is.
NARRATOR: Serban thought that the layer of scum must hold the key
to the cave’s ecosystem. Eventually he realised that it was made
up of microbes. The scum was a thick microbial mat. This was the
base of the food chain, but what were the microbes living on? When
Serban analysed the microbes, he discovered that in the absence
of sunlight they were using hydrogen sulphide as their energy source.
The microbes were extracting energy from chemicals in the water.
It’s a process known as chemosynthesis The water in the cave is
rich in hydrogen sulphide which comes from hot springs welling up
from deep within the Earth.
SERBAN SARBU: This is the power source this is the fuel that keeps
the underground eco-system going.
NARRATOR: This cave shows that the secret of sustaining life in
dark, isolated underwater worlds is hot springs. If there were hot
springs in Lake Vostok the odds of finding a more complex range
of creatures would soar, but hot springs occur in geologically active
areas. Even if Lake Vostok was once an active rift that does not
mean it’s still geologically active today. Most scientists believe
that East Antarctica is now geologically dead. There are no volcanoes
and very few Earthquakes but last year Robin Bell discovered that
a few of those Earthquakes formed an intriguing pattern.
ROBIN BELL: There is a line of Earthquakes in East Antarctica where
there aren’t very many Earthquakes and I just jokingly said to my
friends well look, maybe this is important. Here they are plotted.
You can see it’s parallel to the edge of the lake. Earthquakes running
here, the lake running here. This suggests that the processes that
formed Lake Vostok the pulling apart of the Earth are active today
and that there’s a good chance there may be hot springs along the
edge of Lake Vostok.
NARRATOR: In the absence of light these hot springs might fuel life
in Lake Vostok.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: If we can find the hot springs in the lake it’s
going to offer us more possibilities to find a greater range of
organisms and that’s going to increase the chances that we’re going
to find something really interesting.
NARRATOR: Back at Vostok Station the story of the lake has taken
an extraordinary new twist. Quite by chance it turns out that scientists
may unwittingly have got their hands on an actual sample of water
from the lake. Buried in the ice core they found something completely
unexpected. The very bottom of the ice core looked different from
all the rest. Mysterious black lumps were embedded in the ice. Scientists
JEAN ROBERT PETIT: We say OK, we are very deep, we reach 3,600 metres,
but there is strange ice there. We cannot explain.
NARRATOR: Under polarised light the normal crystal structure of
the ice is full of hundreds of tiny crystals, but the bottom layer
of ice was very different, just a few huge crystals.
JEAN ROBERT PETIT: The crystal size were pronouncedly(?) bigger.
We get one core long like this, one metres long only one crystal
and we were very surprised to find such a crystal. I never saw that.
NARRATOR: Those giant crystals meant that the bottom layer of the
ice core couldn’t be from the ice sheet above the lake. That left
only one source for the ice: Lake Vostok itself. Lake water must
have frozen onto the bottom of the ice sheet over thousands of years.
The black lumps must once have been sediment floating in the lake
that was trapped when the ice formed.
JEAN ROBERT PETIT: Vostok. I’m holding in my hand this piece of
ice which come from the incredible Lake Vostok and it is a, a clear
sample of the water from this incredible lake.
NARRATOR: A sample of the ice was sent to Antarctic biologist John
Priscu for analysis. He prepared his samples meticulously. He was
hoping to find some sign of life in the sample, the first proof
that life existed in Lake Vostok. It looked as if the lake could
be about to reveal its secrets and under the electron microscope
this is what he saw. Not just one, but hundreds of tiny white microbes.
JOHN PRISCU: When we found the microbes I had the $100 bill out
to light the cigars, you know. This the first evidence for life
at like 4 kilometres below the surface of the ice. The lake the
size of Lake Ontario. This is quite a, quite a find.
NARRATOR: It seemed a triumph, but then doubts crept in.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: The bugs that are being reported from the ice
by John Priscu are potentially real, but they also there is the
potential from them being contaminants because the drilling fluid
around the ice core would have been contaminated with microbes.
We know that and we do know that micro-cracks are formed during
the stresses of drilling and microbes could potentially move through
these micro-cracks into the centre of the core and contaminate the
clean centre. I think that the, the jury is still out as to whether
the discovery of bugs in the ice is a real result or contamination.
The only way we’re going to really satisfy that question is to actually
go into the lake itself.
NARRATOR: NASA hold the key to getting down into the lake. They
remain determined to search for life on distant Europa, so they’ve
turned their formidable resources to the task of working out how
to get into its surrogate, Lake Vostok, to find life before they
fly to Europa. NASA will have to design a remote controlled robot
that can hunt for life in a vast expanse of water. It will be like
looking for a needle in a haystack and because this robot won’t
be able to bring samples back to the surface, it will have to carry
on board a raft of devices that will help its search for life. Ken
Nealson runs a team of NASA scientists who develop technology to
hunt for life in extreme environments. They regularly come to Mono
Lake in California to practice. It’s rather more accessible than
Lake Vostok, but shares an important characteristic.
PROF. KEN NEALSON (NASA Astrobiology Group): If one thinks about
Mono Lake and Lake Vostok they certainly don’t look similar or feel
similar, but they have some uniting features of both being hostile
environments that may harbour life that we’re not used to thinking
about on this planet.
NARRATOR: Mono Lake is so salty that almost nothing can live here,
so searching for life here offers similar problems to Lake Vostok.
Rather than hunt for specific organisms, this team looks for the
clues life leaves behind, such as changing oxygen levels in the
water indicating its being used by living creatures. Ken Nealson
is using an ingenious machine that measures the percentage of dissolved
oxygen in water. It’s called a hydrolab. At key points in the lake
he finds a sudden change in the oxygen levels. It’s a classic signature
KEN NEALSON: If we saw this steep profile indicative of oxygen consumptions
as we went into Lake Vostok you would be pretty convinced of two
things. (1) that there was probably life in the lake and (2) that
that was the point to go look for it.
NARRATOR: But that’s just the beginning. Having found where to look
the Vostok robot will need to analyse a sample of water to be sure
it’s found life. This is what the robot might find, unidentified
microscopic filaments in its water sample.
KEN NEALSON: Most biologists would say that looks like life, but
that’s not good enough. You can form filaments of things without
them being alive, so you also need to know what it's made of?
NARRATOR: The robot will need to examine the filament at the molecular
level. What it needs is a spectrometer. By firing a laser at a sample
and measuring the reflections a spectrometer can actually identify
the molecules it’s looking at.
KEN NEALSON: From the read-out we see peaks that tells us there’s
DNA-like molecules, protein-like molecules and quinone-like molecules,
all characteristic of life.
NARRATOR: This molecular signature leaves no doubt. The filament
can only be a form of life. But other scientists have different
ideas about the equipment that should be on board the Vostok robot.
Years of development lie ahead.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: Very quickly when we started assembling our wish
list of, of tests we’d gone up to 20 or 30 different experiments.
NARRATOR: The Vostok robot would need to contain a whole range of
devices to help it find life. The hydrolab; a spectrometer; a video
camera; lights; microscopes; sensors to measure pressure, water
chemistry and temperature; a computer. And the most daunting challenge
is that all these and more have got to fit in to a robot the size
of a 'squeezy' bottle because that’s all they can fit down a bore-hole
through 4 kilometres of ice, but the problems don’t stop there.
CYNAN ELLIS-EVANS: People are always coming up with the idea that
the technological issues they’re associated with miniaturising equipment
to go down the bore-hole are going to be the, the really serious
issues of Lake Vostok, but to my mind a much more pressing issue
and one that really is going to govern what we do is the issue of
NARRATOR: For millions of years Lake Vostok’s pristine waters have
been sealed off by the ice above it. The great challenge now is
to find a way of getting the robot into the lake without breaking
this isolating seal. The robot would need to be put inside a probe
for its journey, but how to get the probe and its robot down through
4 kilometres of ice and into the lake. The risk of contamination
prevents NASA from using the Russians’ existing drill hole, even
thought it’s temptingly close to the lake. So NASA have come up
with an ingenious alternative. They could melt their way down.
FRANK CARSEY: We need to develop a vehicle that will move through
the ice melting its way.
NARRATOR: Hot jets of water would pump out of the probe.
FRANK CARSEY: We have to do this with the, the hole behind us sealed
NARRATOR: As it sinks through the ice the melt water left behind
would re-freeze sealing the probe off from the surface.
FRANK CARSEY: In addition, we have to do this work under the pressure
of 4 kilometres of ice so everything that we build has to be capable
of survival in this very high pressure.
NARRATOR: There are few materials strong enough to withstand these
crushing forces. The current best bet is titanium.
FRANK CARSEY: But now we have a final step. The final step is that
we want to prevent the probe from transporting bacteria from the
ice and from the air into the lake.
NARRATOR: They’ve come up with an elegantly simple solution. Just
before the probe reaches the bottom of the ice sheet it could stop
and inside its icy cocoon it could give itself a sterilising bath.
Finally the clean probe at the end of its journey would release
the robot to motor off in search of life. But it will be many years
before this planned robot becomes a reality.
FRANK CARSEY: My guess is that we will be exploring Lake Vostok
in something like 5 years. Whether we expect to have an observatory
in the lake for at least a year and possibly for several years there
is nothing on the probe in the current design that would get used
up. We do not expect to get the probe back.
NARRATOR: So the robot will have a one-way ticket. It will never
see the light of day again, but NASA hope that when it does finally
enter Lake Vostok it will help to unravel some of the secrets of
Back to 'The Lost World of Lake Vostok' programme page
Filming at the Vostok Base