Russia says it has pierced through the frozen crust of Antarctica to a huge subglacial lake that has lain undisturbed for millions of years.
If life is found, it may give a glimpse of how the planet was before the ice age – and provide clues as to whether life can exist in the extreme conditions on Mars.
After 20 years of on-and-off drilling, the expedition breached Lake Vostok, 4,000 metres below the surface, just in time to avoid the harsh Antarctic winter.
“There isn’t a single object on the Earth that has been isolated from the rest of the world for more than 20 million years. We don’t know what the climate was then, but let’s put that aside, we don’t know what sort of bacterial world existed then, how the genesis of life was happening. The answers could be here,” said Lev Savatyugin of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.
The hidden network of lakes was discovered via satellite imagery in the 1990s.
The head of the Russian expedition said it was as important as the first space flight.
But Russia must wait until the Antarctic summer to collect water samples, opening the door for rival missions to explore other subglacial lakes.