Scientists have peered for the first time into the interior of a lake hidden beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. Subglacial Lake Whillans, located less than 400 miles from the South Pole, had sat isolated under the ice for hundreds of thousands of years—perhaps up to a million years. But over the last week a team of ice drillers has used a jet of hot water to melt a narrow hole into the lake through 2,600 feet of ice.
Final confirmation that the lake had been reached unfolded inside a steel shipping container parked on the ice sheet on four massive skis. Seventeen people crowded into this mobile control room as a video camera was lowered into the borehole. All eyes were riveted to a computer monitor. A scene reminiscent of cosmic wormhole travel unfolded on it: the camera steered into the black void at the center of the screen; the smooth, round, undulating walls of ice-hole scrolled by on the edges.
Billowing clouds obscured the camera’s view in the lower reaches of the hole. Then, as the swirling silt settled, a fuzzy picture emerged: the camera lay on its side, its lens looking across a muddy brown bottom strewn with small rocks. Wisps of mud drifted above. The image, knitted in rows of grainy pixels, echoed the first pictures of the Martian surface, radioed back by the Viking lander almost 40 years ago.
The door of the control room opened and in stepped a woman covered head to ankle in a sterile white Tyvek suit—Jill Mikucki, a microbiologist from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who had helped lower the camera into the lake. Mikucki pointed her own little Canon at the image on the computer monitor and tried to snap a photo—“Oh,” she murmured, disappointed: the cold had killed her batteries. She paused. “It’s beautiful,” she said, forced to appreciate it in the moment—“really beautiful”—then she hurried out to help retrieve the camera.