At Russia's Vostok Antarctic scientific station, for instance, scientists are eager to get a look at an ancient lake that sits under more than 10,000 feet of ice. Because Lake Vostok, as the huge buried lake is known, has been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years, scientists believe it may contain strange organisms adapted to its cold, black waters -- just the kind of animal that might live on Europa, one of Jupiter's frozen moons.
Researchers have already drilled down to within a few hundred feet of the lake's surface. But they won't go any farther until they figure out a way to send down a probe capable of penetrating the lake without contaminating it. Carrying out such a robotic mission will be difficult and expensive, costing $20 million or more. And some people doubt it can be done at all, and are opposing international efforts to collect samples from the lake. "Vostok's value to science is too important to be compromised for the sake of finding a method of exploring other planets," says a spokesman for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an advocacy group.
That debate won't be settled soon. And neither will another extraterrestrial argument that has its origin in Antarctica. Scientists have long known that Antarctica's ice sheets are an excellent place to find unspoiled meteorites, which fall to Earth and are then sealed in the ice. One truly remarkable falling star is known as meteorite ALH84001. The stone was a piece of the planet Mars, blasted from the red planet in some ancient celestial collision. And in 1996, a team of three NASA scientists announced that this potato-sized rock appeared to contain something truly astounding: microscopic fossils of bacteria that had at one time flourished on Mars. This discovery meant the unthinkable: that Mars had once supported life.
The claim made headlines -- and drew a crowd of skeptics. After several years of further studies, few scientists still believe the Mars rocks contain evidence of life. The original study, many researchers say, found only mineral grains that look like bacteria. "You would have a hard time finding even a small number of people who are enthused by the idea of life being recorded in this meteorite," paleontologist Andrew Knoll of Harvard University told the magazine SCIENCE in 1998. Still, many researchers hope that Antarctica will one day help solve that age-old question: Are we alone in the universe, or is Earth just one life-holding globe among many?