NASA breaks the ice over Lake Whillans

The space agency deploys a sub 800 metres below a vast Antarctic glacier

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Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A video camera on NASA's Micro-Submersible Lake Exploration Device captured this view during the craft's descent.


It is said that more is known about the surface of Mars than the deepest parts of Earth’s oceans. That explains why NASA, in a move away from cosmic pursuits, has sent a submersible to the depths of a remote and inhospitable lake over 600 metres below an Antarctic ice sheet.

The space agency built the Micro-Submersible Lake Exploration Device, a small robotic sub about the size and shape of a baseball bat, to aid researchers working on the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, an international effort to explore Lake Whillans, a subglacial lake located deep below Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf.

The sub, designed to operate at depths of up to 1.2 kilometres, was used to guide a 50 centimetre wide drill 800 metres down through the ice, before finally reaching the lake on 28 January 2013. This is when NASA’s sub came into its own, capturing high-resolution images, measuring the lake’s salinity, temperature and depth and sending everything back to the surface via fiber-optic cables.

Alberto Behar from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory headed the design and build team, "This is the first instrument ever to explore a subglacial lake outside of a borehole," he said. "It's able to take us places that are inaccessible by any other instruments in existence."

Using this initial data, the WISSARD team was able to confirm that the rest of the project's instruments could safely be deployed into the lake. Following this the team began collecting lake water samples to search for microbial life, the mission's primary objective.

And it seems the research has already paid off. Earlier this month, the team reported that the lake did contain traces of living bacteria, a discovery that could have positive implications for the search for extraterrestrial life.


 

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