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December 14, 2012

Team probes for life in lake beneath 2 miles of Antarctic ice

LONDON — British scientists were to start drilling Wednesday in Antarctica in their quest to discover whether life exists in a lake that's been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years 3 kilometers (2 miles) below the ice.

The researchers will use a drill that pumps hot water at high pressure to bore through the ice. After firing the boiler's burners yesterday, they'll begin test drills before drilling down to the lake by Sunday, said Chris Hill, program manager at the British Antarctic Survey for the project at Lake Ellsworth, near the center of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

"Since that boiler fired up, the mood's been pretty good," Hill said Tuesday in a satellite phone interview from the drilling site. "We have to wait on this like expectant fathers."

The 8-million-pound ($13 million) plan is the culmination of 16 years of planning. Researchers aim to recover water and sediment samples from the lake to determine whether life exists there and shed clues on the past climate of Antarctica.

"The most likely organisms to be found will be bacterial — they're everywhere," David Pearce, a microbiologist at the program said in an interview in October, shortly before heading to the southern continent to begin preparations. "If there's nothing there, that will tell us the limits for the existence of life on Earth."

After testing the drill works, the researchers plan to bore down 300 meters where they'll create a water-filled cavity to help balance the water pressure between the lake and the borehole. Then, they plan to make a separate hole from the top, through the cavity and down to the lake.

Once the drill is removed, Hill said "the clock starts ticking" and the researchers have just 24 to 30 hours to recover samples before the hole refreezes and becomes too narrow to safely lower instruments.

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