NASA says that a micro-sub played a major role in the recent confirmation of life at the bottom of the Antarctic subglacial Lake Whillans. The first images of the bottom of the lake were captured by the high-resolution imager aboard the micro-submarine.
NASA reports that the micro-submarine was deployed by the US team of the international Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project. The objective of the project was to access for the first time the subglacial Lake Whillans located more than 2,000 feet (610 meters) below sea level within West Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf, about 700 miles (about 1,125 kilometers) from the U.S. McMurdo Station. According to NASA,
the 20-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) lake at a temperature of 31 degrees Fahrenheit, has no sunlight penetration, and it is part of an extensive
Antarctic subglacial aquatic system that covers an area about the size of the continental United States. NASA reports that water retrieved from the subglacial Lake Whillans contains 1,000 bacteria per milliliter (about a fifth of a teaspoon according to Live Science). Live Science reports that according to biologist John Priscu of Monatana State University, Petri dishes swiped with samples of the lake water have grown colonies of the microbes. The robotic micro-submarine about the size of a baseball bat is equipped with hydrological chemical sensors and a high-resolution imaging system. The instruments and cameras were used to characterize the geology, hydrology and chemical characteristics of the lake, NASA reports Alberto Behar, researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, supervised a team of students from Arizona State University, who designed and developed the micro-submarine. Behar said: "This is the first instrument ever to explore a subglacial lake outside of a borehole. It's able to take us places that are inaccessible by any other instruments in existence." The submarine was dropped down a 2,625-foot (800 meters) borehole into Lake Whillans in January, tethered to the surface with a fiber optic cable. The submarine returned the first images of a buried Antarctic lake. The video above shows the micro-submarine exploring the buried lake. Behar said: "Everyone was incredibly excited to see the first images. According to NASA, Behar led the instrument's design team, which consisted mainly of students from Arizona State University." NASA reports that the micro-submarine sent back video, salinity, temperature and depth data to researchers who were camped on the ice surface. The video confirmed to the researchers that it was safe to send down more instruments to explore, collect data, water and soil samples. The expedition returned to the US with 8 gallons (30 liters) of lake water and eight sediment cores from the bottom of the lake. The samples will be tested for signs of life. NASA scientists are excited at the prospects because it gives them a rare opportunity to study novel forms of life in extreme and harsh environments, the sort of environments in which they will be searching for extra-terrestrial life. The expedition, called the WISSARD project (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling), began on Jan. 21, and broke through ice on Jan. 28. The WISSARD team included researchers from eight U.S. universities and two international institutions.