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December 13, 2012

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

(Continued)

LONDON —

First they'll lower a sterile ultraviolet lamp down to irradiate any life around the edges of the hole, Hill said in a briefing in October. Then, they'll send down a probe with 24 canisters to collect water samples from different depths.

Finally, a sediment corer will be dropped down to recover a length of sediment from the lake bed. By analyzing a column of sediment, scientists can tell whether the ice sheet has retreated in the past, because of the presence or not of fossilized marine organisms in the silt.

"We'll probably reach the lake around Sunday, retract the drill by Monday and start deploying the instruments late Monday or Tuesday," Hill said.

As soon as the first probe returns to the surface, researchers will be able to study some of the samples to gauge whether life was found, said Hill. The rest will be sent back by sea to Britain, where they'll arrive about May for study in laboratories across the country, with the first scientific papers likely by late 2013 or early 2014, he said.

If conditions allow, they'll re-drill the hole and lower a duplicate set of all the instruments down. Hill said that the five-day weather forecast predicts low winds and some cloud cover. Temperatures in the Antarctic summer are currently around minus 18 degrees Celsius (0 degrees Fahrenheit), falling to minus 35 degrees with wind-chill, he said.

Lakes exist deep below the Antarctic surface because the pressure exerted by thousands of meters of ice drives down the freezing point of water. Lake Ellsworth is one of at least 387 known sub-glacial Antarctic lakes.

The drilling program is the culmination of an ambition dating back 16 years, when the project's principle scientist, Martin Siegert, a glaciologist now at the University of Edinburgh, began searching through radio echo-sounding data to uncover Antarctic lakes, according to Hill.

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