When we’ve got our own alien lifeforms right here on Earth? Two enormous lakes have been discovered under the ice sheet that covers Antarctica. Since they were formed as a result of tectonic action rather than being scooped out by glaciers, they’ve probably been down there, laking it up, for millions of years.

And “down there” is really far down — more than 2 miles (3.5 km), so far that it’s warm enough to keep it all liquid.

No one has any idea what’s really down there. But speculation amongst English speakers in the know (i.e. research scientists at Columbia University, the University of New Hampshire and NASA) is that the lakes are probably home to some kind of “extremophiles” — organisms that always have to take things TO THE EXTREME.

Such organisms are widely considered possible on distant worlds like Europa, a moon of Jupiter, which is similarly covered with ice, and heated by tectonic action from below. The Antarctic lakes, named, dashingly, Sovetskaya (the Russian research base that coincidentally sits above it) and “90°E” (left as an exercise for the reader), could serve as test runs for some future exploration of Europa, giving scientists a chance to figure out exactly how to go about boring through miles of ice without messing everything up, like the Russians may be doing with Lake Vostok.

Vostok, bigger than Lake Ontario, was discovered in the 1950s by a Russian geographer and dynamite enthusiast named Kapitsa, who claimed he stayed warm by eating pounds of butter at a time. Finding himself on an unusually flat plain in the ice sheet, he measured how long it would take the sound of his dynamite to come back to him from beneath the ice. He never confirmed the lake was there, but his readings were weird enough to prompt further interest decades later.

As you read this, the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institution (AARI) is drilling towards Vostok. They say the massive pressure that will hit their drill once it punches through to liquid will blast all the water, diesel fuel and oil upwards and out of the lake’s rarified ecology. Others are skeptical. The National Academy of Polar Research will recommend contamination guidelines in about a year’s time. But by then will it be too late?

AARI has already gone about 2 miles down and needs just 150 yards before it breaks through. But my sources tell me they won’t get there for another two years. Why? “So they can keep eating good soup.”

The two new lakes are described in the Feb. 2006 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.