The Mysteries of Lake Vostok — The Search for Life on Other Planets Begins on Our Own

Even as NASA telescopes discover new worlds outside of our solar system routinely and the Voyager spacecrafts prepare to enter interstellar space, it may come as a surprise to many that there are still plenty of secrets to be discovered right here on Earth.  One of these is Lake Vostok, a huge lake in Antarctica that has been sealed off by glacial ice a very long time.  When we say a long time, we are talking huge amounts of time.  Scientists have verified that the ice has sealed off Lake Vostok from the rest of the world for at least 400,000 years.  However, they are quick to point out that this is only the amount of time they can prove with physical evidence.  Most geologists agree that Lake Vostok may have been closed off by ice for considerably longer, perhaps even millions of years.

So what’s the big deal, you say?  Here’s the reason Lake Vostok is so special.  It has been blocked off from the rest of Earth for so long by the ice that there is a possibility that there could be totally unique lifeforms below the ice, living in what is surmised to be freshwater.  Radar has indicated that the area is saturated with nitrogen and oxygen.  The lifeforms beneath the ice in Lake Vostok could be unlike anything on the rest of our planet.  This is because they have been locked away in a special situation for so long that their own evolutionary process has taken place without any interference from anything else.  Furthermore, scientists are excited to discover more about the microbes because, assuming they exist, they have found a way to continue to exist in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.  There could even be a wide variety, because the geothermal energy from within the Earth actually puts off heat.  This means that at the lower levels of the lake, heat from inside the Earth actually warms the water.  Some forms of life may have discovered this and stayed closer to the bottom of the lake to have more ideal living conditions.  Even in the harshest parts, however, they do have water, and water has long been the most prominent requirement for life to evolve and survive.

While it may be pretty exciting to find new lifeforms on Earth, there are more far-reaching implications to this.  NASA firmly believes that the manner in which these microbes are surviving in Lake Vostok will be very similar

These microbes live on the ice above Lake Vostok, which is plenty harsh of an environment already.

to the way microbes might be doing the same on other planets.  For example, Mars has icecaps.  This has been proven.  If Lake Vostok shows that life can survive sealed off by a glacier for millions of years, then it may very well give clues to the same possibilities on Mars.  Also, Europa, a large moon of Jupiter, is another candidate where a Lake Vostok-like situation could be taken place.  Europa is composed of mostly rock with a thick layer of ice covering the surface completely.  Ice means water had to exist at some point or another on Europa, and this leads scientists to believe that perhaps beneath that wall of ice is still liquid water.  And where they find water, presumably, some form of life may not be far behind.

Studying the mysteries of Lake Vostok is like having a special training ground here on Earth to see what it might be like on other planets and moons.  We may be able to glean enough knowledge from it to know how to go about looking for life on Europa and Mars, and understanding just how resilient life really is when it comes to finding a way to survive in the most insane of conditions.  However, NASA has just one problem…the Russians discovered Lake Vostok first and have been running all operations regarding it ever since.  They jumped right into action, using hot-water drilling techniques to try to penetrate the ice to get to the freshwater below and take a sample.  This met tremendous opposition from NASA.  NASA says that the problem with drilling down to the water is that there is no way to control everything that is happening.  What makes the Lake Vostok situation so unique and profound is that it has truly been isolated.  Once Russian drills penetrate the ice, it is not isolated anymore.  There is no way to know that bacteria and microbes did not piggyback on Russian materials and then were released into the freshwater.  Basically, NASA says that at that point, whatever they find out would be useless due to the fact that they don’t know if the data was contaminated by outside sources or not.

Jupiter's moon, icy Europa, may be an example of a Lake Vostok-like situation in space.

NASA knows what they are talking about.  Their Viking mission caused a lot of excitement in the scientific community when it landed on Mars and took some samples from the surface.  They found what they thought were signs of life, but after careful consideration, NASA realized that not enough measures were taken to make sure that the things they witnessed in the Martian soil didn’t come from Earth with the spacecrafts.  This continues to be a paradox as far as the search for life goes.  The act of looking for life has the unfortunate side effect of possibly contaminating the experiment from the outset.  NASA is adamant that new technology being worked on as we speak will eventually make the Lake Vostok experiment possible without contamination worries.  However, Russia seems to be impatient, and probably wants to scoop NASA with whatever it finds there.  So, the alien world of Lake Vostok, located right on our own planet, may soon find its secrets tampered with.