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How Lake Vostok could transform our understanding of life as we know it

Russian researchers in Antarctica say they have successfully drilled through more than two miles of ice to reach a vast lake that has been sealed off from light or air for at least 14 million years. If living organisms are found in the lake, it would greatly boost hopes of finding life on other worlds. 

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This image provided by NASA in March 2010 shows a small shrimp-like creature at a depth of 600 feet beneath Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf. When Russian scientists examine samples from Lake Vostok, which hasn't seen light or wind for some 20 million years, they may find microbes. If so, it'll show again that no matter how harsh, life finds a way to survive in the strangest places on Earth.

NASA/AP

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Russia said on Wednesday it had pierced through Antarctica's frozen crust to a vast, subglacial lake that has lain untouched for at least 14 million years hiding what scientists believe may be unknown organisms and clues to life on other planets.

Sealed deep under the ice sheet, Lake Vostok is one of the world's last unexplored frontiers. Scientists suspect its depths may reveal new life forms and a glimpse of the planet before the ice age.

If life is found in the lake's icy darkness, it may provide the best answer yet to whether life can exist in the extreme conditions on Mars or Jupiter's moon Europa.

"The 57th Russian Antarctic expedition has penetrated the waters of the subglacial Lake Vostok," Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic expedition, said in a statement.

After 20 years of stop-go drilling, the Russian team raced to chew through the final metres of ice and breached Lake Vostok in time to take the last flight out on Feb. 6 before the onset of Antarctica's harsh winter. It was here that the coldest temperature found on Earth, minus 89.2 Celsius (minus 128.6 Fahrenheit), was recorded.

Lukin said the breakthrough came on Feb. 5, on the eve of the mission's departure: "At a depth of 3,769 metres (12,365 ft) the drill bit made contact with the real body of water.

"The discovery of this lake is comparable to the first space flight in its technological complexity, its importance and its uniqueness," Lukin told Interfax.

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