Team set to collect water and sediments from Antarctica

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A British engineering team is heading to Antarctica for the first stage of a scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from a lake buried beneath 3km of ice.

The research project, which is due to travel to Antarctica next week, is expected to yield discoveries about the evolution of life on Earth and other planets, and will provide clues about the Earth’s past climate.

Transporting nearly 70 tonnes of equipment, the advance party of four engineers from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will make a journey to sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).

‘Our task is to prepare the way for the “deep-field” research mission that will take place next year,’ said Chris Hill, Sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth programme manager. ‘In October 2012 we will return to the site with a team of 10 scientists and engineers to make a 3km bore hole through the ice using… hot-water drilling technology. We will then lower a titanium probe to measure and sample the water followed by a corer to extract sediment from the lake.’

Scientists at BAS and Durham University, working in partnership with Austrian business UWITEC, designed and built the sediment corer. The percussion-driven piston corer is reportedly strong enough to penetrate the most compacted glacial sediments to extract a core sample.

The 5m-long water sampling probe was designed and built by engineers at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Made of high-grade titanium, it will collect 24 water samples at different lake depths. It will also capture the top layer of sediments at the lake floor/water interface.

It is claimed that both pieces of equipment are designed to prevent contamination of the lake.

Lake Ellsworth is likely to be the first of Antarctica’s 387 known sub-glacial lakes to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of these technologies.

Dr David Pearce, science coordinator at BAS, is part of the team leading the ‘search for life’ in the lake water and will go to Lake Ellsworth for stage two of the mission.

‘Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments,’ he said. ‘If we find nothing this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet.’