On February 5, a drill bit broke through 12,366 feet of ice to hit the waters of Antarctica's vast and pristine Lake Vostok, after 20 years of on-and-off drilling. Human instruments had never before touched Vostok nor any of the other 250 buried lakes hidden beneath Antarctica's ice sheets. Under immense pressure from the weight of the overlying ice, lake water instantly gushed up the borehole, forcing out 100,000 pounds of kerosene drill fluid that had filled the hole—and sparking celebration among the team of Russian scientists on the surface.
Vostok has been sealed off from the surface for 15 million years, fueling eager speculation that archaic organisms might be secluded there. The Russian team plans to retrieve samples of frozen water from the borehole in early 2013 and look for such microbes. Their analysis will offer clues to whether Jupiter's moon Europa or Saturn's moon Enceladus, both of which harbor liquid water locked beneath miles of ice, could also host life. "Vostok is probably our best model" for the ice-covered oceans on other worlds, says John Priscu, a microbial ecologist at Montana State University who studies polar bacteria. "It's one of the last unexplored frontiers."
This year, Priscu will lead one of two teams that plan to drill into two other Antarctic subglacial bodies of water, Lake Ellsworth and Lake Whillans.