Antarctica exploration could support outer moons mission

Work is currently underway in Antarctica to bore into Lake Ellsworth, deep beneath the icy surface.  Engineers are using near-boiling water to bore down through the ice and reach the lake, which hasn't been in contact with the surface for at least 500,000 years.  Scientists then hope to test the water for evidence of microbial life which may be living in this remote location.  Half a million years separated from the rest of Earth is enough time for these tiny creatures to have possibly developed in ways unknown to us until now.

A successful project here could also lend credence to ideas about similar studies on the surface of icy satellites such as Europa and Enceladus.  Like Lake Ellsworth, any pockets of liquid water beneath the freezing surfaces of these moons would have to be kept (just barely!) liquid by internal heating, not light from the Sun.  The project's drilling technique would transfer reasonably-well to a spacecraft mission, too.  Certainly carrying some water (or other appropriate liquid) is easier and more reliable than a large metal drill bit!

Of course, finding life in Lake Ellsworth is vastly more likely than on any of the outer moons. While life of Earth is known to survive in such harsh conditions, it almost certainly did not arise there.  Life on Earth is believed to have first formed in warm, wet conditions and then evolved to survive in  harsher climates.  Europa, TItan, Enceladus, and other outer moons were likely warm (and maybe wet!) shortly after their formation, but their small size and large distance from the Sun means that any window for forming life as it likely formed on Earth must have been brief.

First results from this project are expected early next week, so let's keep our fingers crossed that they don't come up empty!

Source: BBC

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