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After 10 years of persevering through Antarctic icy weather and the world’s most difficult and remote working conditions, a team of Russian scientists has finally reached the surface of Lake Vostok, a veritable scientific frontier under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. This week, the 12,400-foot-deep ice core they drilled touched the surface of the gigantic freshwater lake.

The New York Times reported:

As planned, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole 100-130 feet pushing drilling fluid up and away from the pristine water, Mr. Yelagin said, and forming a frozen plug that will prevent contamination.

There have been much-disputed hints that life might still exist there. If so, that would give a great boost to hopes of finding life in similar conditions in icy water on one of the moons of Jupiter.

And from the AP

Lake Vostok could hold living organisms that have been locked in icy darkness for some 20 million years, as well as clues to the search for life elsewhere in the solar system.

The effort has drawn fears that the more than 60 tons of lubricants and antifreeze used in the drilling may contaminate the lake’s pristine waters. Bell said the Russian team was doing its best “to do it right” and avoid contamination, but others were nervous.

“Lake Vostok is the crown jewel of lakes there,” said University of Colorado geological sciences professor James White. “These are the last frontiers on the planet we are exploring. We really ought to be very careful.”

Lukin said Russia had waited several years for international approval of its drilling technology before proceeding. He said that, as anticipated, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole, pushing the drilling fluid up and away, then froze, forming a protective plug that will prevent contamination of the lake.

Russian scientists will remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer season comes. They reached the lake just before they had to leave at the end of the Antarctic summer, when plunging temperatures halt all travel to the region.

Each year the effort has been a race against time, as scientists are forced to evacuate the project each February as the austral winter envelopes the Antarctic continent, rendering working conditions impossible. Vostok is the coldest point on the planet, registering -127 degrees Fahrenheit this week, and at an elevation of 11,000 feet, oxygen supplies are thin. Indeed, the station is at the Pole of Cold, where the lowest air temperature has been recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. Last year’s effort stopped just 96 feet short of reaching the lake.

The project has been controversial among scientists and environmentalists, due to the risk of contamination. Next Antarctic season – in October 2012, the scientific team will return, hoping to send down a robot to take samples of the water and sediment floor. Approval is still pending from the Antarctic Treaty organization. Scientists hope information gleaned from Lake Vostok and other subglacial lakes will contribute to our understanding of climate change, life on other planets, and other scientific inquiries.

“In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life,” NASA’s chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told The Associated Press in an email Wednesday.

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