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Frozen 'lake' beneath Antarctica ideal to test sterile drilling techniques

Berkeley - Measurements of the ice temperature far below the South Pole suggest that a so-called "lake" discovered at the base of the ice is most likely permafrost - a frozen mixture of dirt and ice - because the temperature is too low for liquid water.

Far from being a disappointment, says a University of California, Berkeley physicist, the permafrost subglacial lake may be ideal for developing and testing sterile drilling techniques needed before scientists attempt to punch through the ice into pristine liquid lakes elsewhere in Antarctica in search of exotic microbes.

Techniques that avoid contaminating a drill site with microbes also would prove useful for future drilling into Mars' polar caps in search of life.

"This would be an excellent place to develop a sterile drill," said P. Buford Price, professor of physics at UC Berkeley. "Then, if we find that we've inadvertently contaminated the permafrost lake, we can be confident that the contamination is confined to only a small area."

Drilling into a frozen lake 2.8 kilometers below South Pole Station would have scientific interest in its own right, he said.

"We are likely to find interesting microbial life in the permafrost, in addition to learning how to drill in a sterile way," he said.

Price and colleagues in the United States and Russia made the recommendation in a paper that appeared in the June 11 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In their paper, the team reported data on temperature versus depth down to 2.3 kilometers beneath South Pole Station, based on temperature sensors implanted as part of the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) observatory.

Price, a cosmic ray physicist, is one of more than 100 collaborators in the AMANDA project, a National Science Foundation-funded array of detectors imbedded in deep ice at the South Pole and primed to look for high-energy neutrinos originating in exotic objects ou
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Contact: Robert Sanders
rls@pa.urel.berkeley.edu
510-643-6998
University of California - Berkeley
1-Jul-2002


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