Philae’s Batteries Have Drained, Comet Lander Sleeps

 

Philae, first comet lander, Nov. 12, 2014 – Nov. 15, 2014 (CET).

In the final hours, Philae’s science team hurried to squeeze as much science out of the small lander as possible. But the deep sleep was inevitable, Rosetta’s lander has slipped into hibernation after running its batteries dry.

In its final hour, the official Philae Twitter feed conversed with the official Rosetta account, saying, “I’m feeling a bit tired, did you get all my data? I might take a nap.”

“My #lifeonacomet has just begun @ESA_Rosetta. I’ll tell you more about my new home, comet #67P soon… zzzzz,” it tweeted before falling silent just as the European Space Agency confirmed that Philae had run so low on battery power that it had to drop into hibernation, ceasing all science operations.

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“Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,” said Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager. “This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.”

Contact with the lander was lost at 01:36 CET (7:36 p.m. EST), which is around the time the Rosetta spacecraft orbited beyond the comet’s horizon, severing the communications link with its lander.

According to the ESA Rosetta mission blog, reestablishing communications will not be possible unless enough sunlight falls on the lander’s solar array to charge up its batteries.

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Earlier Friday evening, mission scientists sent commands to the lander to turn its body so that the small amount of sunlight Philae does receive (only 1.5 hours of light per 20 hour comet rotation) will hit more of the solar panels, boosting the possibility of a recharge. But there is only a very slim chance that this operation will bring Philae out of hibernation.

Although this likely spells the end of Rosetta’s surface mission with Philae, as the comet continues its journey around the sun with spacecraft in tow, the solar angle may change, casting more light on the rover in coming weeks — but this is a long-shot.

Regardless, Rosetta will listen out for Philae when the next communication window opens, on Saturday (Nov. 15) at 11:00 CET (5:00 a.m. EST).

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This may be the end of Philae’s short and trailblazing mission on the surface of Comet 67P, but a huge amount of data — including data from a drilling operation that, apparently, was carried out despite concerns that Philae wasn’t positioned correctly — was streamed to Rosetta mission control, potentially revolutionizing our understanding about the nature of comets.

And Rosetta will continue orbiting its comet as 67P drops closer to the sun, providing us with a unique and historic perspective on an icy body that could hold the secrets to the formation of our solar system.

Glowing Bike Path is Inspired by Van Gogh

In The Netherlands, solar-powered paths seems to be all the rage. There’s SolaRoad, which we blogged about yesterday. And now today, we bring you the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path, which opened to the public this week in the Dutch town of Nuenen, where Van Gogh lived in 1883.

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The path, created by local artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde in collaboration with Heijmans Infrastructure, was inspired by Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night painting.

The path is made of thousands of stones that absorb sunlight during the day and then glow at night. Embedded in concrete, the bikeway should last the lifetime of any cement path.

Daan Roosegaarde and Heijmans Infrastructure have also collaborated on similar projects, including Glowing Lines, where highway lines glow in the dark, and Smart Highway, which incorporates Glowing Lines as well as Dynamic Paint and Electric Priority Lanes. The Smart Highway project uses light, energy and road signs that are designed to automatically adapt to the traffic environment and people.

Foldable Phones and Tablets Are Around the Corner

A flexible display could conform to any shape or curvy surface.

Tablets that collapse into phones. Smartphones that fold up like wallets. Those are coming and a Japanese company has the goods to prove it.

At a recent event in Japan, Semiconductor Energy Laboratory (SEL), demonstrated a display that can be folded in three.

It’s not hard to see how this kind of technology could cause a sea change in device development. Products will expand and collapse at will. Open a device as a tablet at a coffee shop then fold it into a smartphone on your way out the door.

This is a big step up from the curved displays available today from Samsung on its Galaxy Note Edge or LG on its G Flex.

“We are starting to see flexible [or curved displays] show up in phones and watches,” said Paul Semenza, an analyst at NPD DisplaySearch. “However, all of these so far have been ‘fixed,’ meaning that they are bent or curved once, and then fixed in place behind strengthened glass.”

On the other hand, the display shown off by SEL can be used in consumer devices whose shape is not fixed. Bendable smartphones and tablets are two examples, Norihiko Seo, General Manager at the Intellectual Property Division of SEL, told Foxnews.com.

In a video, SEL shows the display — based on OLED or Organic Light-Emitting Diode technology, widely used in smartphones today — laying flat in tablet mode. Then it is folded in three (what SEL calls “tri-fold”) into a smaller size that would be suitable for a smartphone.

So, who’s going to use these displays? Microsoft is one possibility, said Seo. SEL and the former Nokia team (now part of Microsoft) have been working together on this technology, according to Seo.

Microsoft declined to comment when contacted by FoxNews.com.

And Samsung has been vocal about this technology for a couple of years. It demonstrated a bendable display back in 2013 that was made of “extremely thin” plastic, instead of glass, that won’t break when it’s dropped. Like the SEL display, it can be flexed at will.

When we will we see real devices? Samsung has been talking about 2015 to introduce products with foldable displays.

Seo of SEL — which is strictly an R&D company — is mum on the subject of products but he adds that his company’s displays have attracted a lot of interest from manufacturers.

DisplaySearch’s Semenza thinks it’s a few years further out for use in a mass-market, high-volume consumer device.

Ikea Bends Over for Flexible LED Lighting

Light emitting diodes, better known as LEDs, run cool and use very little electricity. That’s a cost benefit that furniture giant Ikea simply can’t pass up.

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The company is partnering with Scottish company Design LED Products to incorporate thin, flexible LED tiles on to a range of household products from furniture to bulbless lamps or for television backlighting.

“This technology opens up fantastic possibilities for innovative designs using energy efficient LEDs,” says managing director of IKEA GreenTech Christian Ehrenborg in a press release. “The partnership is a clear strategic fit for IKEA and our goal to make living sustainably affordable and attractive for millions of people.”

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The lights last 20 times longer than conventional lighting and can produced in a variety of colors.

Taste Maker: Better Eating Through Technology

The problem with eating healthy is that you have to eat healthy food. It’s a real dilemma, in my experience, and one of many troubling indications that the universe is essentially unfair.

A designer in Romania may have found a way around this problem, though, with a concept-stage technology that makes any kind of food taste like any other kind of food.

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Oh, it’s trippy, all right. The Set To Mimic system, a finalist in the 2014 Electrolux Design Lab Competition, proposes using a microchip patch on the forehead to essentially hack into your brain and trigger your favorite tastes and smells.

It works like this: Prepare an unhealthy dish that you really like — Scottish lorne sausage, say — and place it on the Set To Mimic plate. Affix the microchip patches to your forehead and dig in. The chip monitors the synaptic activity associated with the taste and smell of the food, then records this data in the hardware of the plate itself.

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Next time around, put some healthy food on the plate — one of those terrifying kale salads, for instance — and turn the dial. The plate broadcasts the synaptic data back to the dermal patches, which manipulates brain activity to replace the taste of kale with the taste of obscure but delicious Scottish breakfast foods.

Or something like that. This is all blue-sky product design thinking, mind you. Creator Sorina Rasteanu is a 22-year-old graduate student in Romania, and the concept development page is rather light on specifics. But there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, and it’s nice to see the young people thinking in the proper direction.

Robot Rides Hoverbike, Nuff Said

we know that life is increasingly busy in the digital age, and there are a million things you could be doing at any given moment. However, may we modestly propose you take a moment to watch this frickin’ robot ride a hoverbike.

Developed by a small operation out of the U.K. called Malloy Aeronautics, the Drone 3 hoverbike is exactly that — a flying motorcycle powered by four turbine fans. But the current vehicle is a 1/3 size scale model — a drone, essentially — with a robot rider to approximate the proportional size and weight of a human rider. The drone is controlled via remote, similar to other UAV designs.

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The Drone 3 is a proof-of-concept demonstration of a more ambitious plan. In an interesting strategy, the 1/3-size drone is being sold via Kickstarter in hopes of funding development of a full-size quadcopter hoverbike, designed for human riders. Think Return of the Jedi, forest moon of Endor, this sort of thing.

Designers say the quadcopter approach, which uses four different overlapping fans, offers improved stability, maneuverability and payload capacity than competing two-fan hoverbike designs. In fact, the Malloy hoverbike is intended to share the skies with helicopters, planes and other aircraft.

“This hoverbike is a helicopter — it takes off like a helicopter, flies and lands like a helicopter,” says Malloy Aeronautics’ Grant Stapleton in the demonstration video. “It’s designed to fly to an altitude of over 9,000 feet and do so at over 100 knots [115 mph].”

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The company is currently finishing up the full-size prototype, with flight tests expected in a few months.

Meanwhile, you can still get on board at the Kickstarter campaign, running through Aug. 31. For a pledge of just under $1,000 USD, you can get a bare-bones Drone 3 kit. For larger pledges, the team will throw in the robotic pilot (named Buster, in case you’re curious), plus a mounted Go Pro camera and dedicated control unit.

Race to Build NASA Space Taxi Down to the Wire

A three-way race to build a commercially operated spaceship to shuttle astronauts — and other paying customers — to and from low-Earth orbit is close the finish line, with NASA aiming to award development and flight service contracts as early as next week.

So far, two companies favoring capsule designs — Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX — have won the lion’s share of NASA’s Commercial Crew program funds. The effort, which began in 2010, is intended to provide a U.S. alternative for flying crews to the International Space Station, which orbits about 260 miles above Earth.

Since NASA retired the space shuttles in 2011, the only human transportation system flying to the station is owned by Russia, which charges about $70 million per person for rides on its Soyuz capsules. NASA hopes to change that before the end of 2017.

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Along with Boeing and SpaceX, NASA has been funding space taxi design work at a third company, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp., though its contracts have been about half of what Boeing and SpaceX received.

Sierra Nevada eschewed the capsule design in favor of a small winged spaceplane called Dream Chaser, which resembles a miniature space shuttle. The company has signed partnership agreements with more than 30 companies, nine universities, nine NASA field centers and three international space agencies, a strategy that could provide some flexibility if it is not selected for additional NASA funding.

“We’ve always looked at this as a system, with the space station being a mission. There are other missions that we are looking at. Having this wide group of companies allows us to look at construction, repair missions, the ability to do short- and long-duration science missions independent of the space station,” Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Space Systems president, told Discovery News.

“For us, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars less at the start of the competition put us at a schedule disadvantage — we couldn’t do as many things — but it made us be a lot more creative in how we were going to manage the last two years,” Sirangelo said.

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“Showing that you can manage to a very tight budget is a pretty big thing,” he added.

Like Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, the Dream Chaser initially would fly on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, which uses a controversial Russian-built motor to power its first stage. Russia has threatened to cut off exports of the motors for military missions in response to U.S. embargoes punishing Russia for incursions into Ukraine. So far, however, the rocket business has continued unimpeded.

SpaceX, which already flies cargo to the space station aboard its Dragon capsules, is adding seats, life support and other upgrades for a passenger version. Both types of Dragon spacecraft launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

So far, NASA has spent about $1.5 billion on the Commercial Crew program. The agency says competition is critical to drive down costs and reduce technical risks. It intends to continue backing development of two space taxi designs, though has not said how it will pay for that.

As part of the program, companies contribute development funds and will own their vehicles and intellectual property. NASA wants to buy flight services, similar to how it pays SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp to make supply runs to the station.

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Even without NASA funding, SpaceX says it will continue developing its human version of Dragon, albeit at a slower pace.

Sierra Nevada will wait to see what happens with the contract awards before deciding how to proceed, said Sirangelo.

“If we weren’t a winner, we need to understand why and that’s going to factor into our thinking … but we’re still planning to move forward,” Sirangelo said.

Boeing’s take is that without NASA investment and flight service contracts, building a business case for the CST-100 “would be very difficult to do,” John Mulholland, Boeing vice president, said earlier this month at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2014 conference in San Diego.

Contract awards are expected by early September.

Mystery of Death Valley’s Moving Rocks Solved

The first witnesses to an enduring natural mystery are an engineer, a biologist and a planetary scientist who met thanks to a remote weather station.

This odd group has captured the first video footage of Death Valley’s sailing stones creeping across Racetrack Playa. For a century, these eerie rocks and their long, graceful trails have stumped visitors and scientists. The boulders of black dolomite appear to move on their own, sliding uphill across the playa’s flat lakebed. The trails are the only evidence the rocks move. No one has ever seen them set sail. [Video: Sailing Stones of Death Valley Seen in Action]

Lacking direct evidence, explanations for this geologic puzzle ran the gamut, from Earth’s magnetic field to gale-force winds to slippery algae. Now, with video, time-lapse photographs and GPS tracking of Racetrack Playa’s moving rocks, the mystery has finally been solved.

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Jagged plates of thin ice, resembling panels of broken glass, bulldoze the rocks across the flooded playa, the scientists reveal today (Aug. 27) in the journal PLOS One. Driven by gentle winds, the rocks seem to hydroplane atop the fluffy, wet mud.

“It’s a wonderful Goldilocks phenomenon,” said lead study author Richard Norris. “Ponds like this are vanishingly rare in Death Valley, and it may be a decade between heavy enough rain or snowfall events to make a substantial pond,” said Norris, a paleobiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California.

One-in-a-million mystery

Leading theories had already narrowed in on wind, water and ice to propel the playa’s rocks. But no one has come up with thin ice before. Models always targeted thick ice sheets, which could float the rocks across the playa like wind-driven icebergs. The ice seen during the study is too thin to pick up anything but pebbles.

“I have to confess I was surprised,” said study co-author Ralph Lorenz, who has authored several studies suggesting thick ice carries the playa rocks. “I really expected buoyancy to be required, and it clearly wasn’t. The ice was thinner than I thought would be needed. It was amazing to see the process actually happen,” said Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

A similar phenomenon is at work in colder climates, on a much more massive scale, the researchers said. When frozen lakes and rivers break up in the spring, the ice floes can dislodge big boulders, leaving grooves in the muddy sediment.

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In a terrain known for its barren and bizarre geology, Racetrack Playa is one of the strangest. The dry lake is 3 miles long (4.5 kilometers), nearly flat as a tabletop and littered with a few hundred rocks. Some are as small as baseballs, but other boulders weigh as much as 700 lbs. (317 kilograms). Even the largest rocks trail long furrows behind them. [Image Gallery: How Ice Drives Death Valley’s Sailing Stones]

Some trails are short; some stretch twice the length of a football field. Other trails sharply zig and zag, suggesting quick changes in direction. Mysteriously, some trails are missing rocks.

The playa occasionally floods in winter, from rain or melted snow. Sitting at 3,608 feet (1,100 meters) above sea level and ringed by mountains, nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing, sheeting the temporary lake in thin ice or freezing it solid.

A rare combination of water and ice combines to move the rocks, the researchers said. The playa lake needs to be deep enough for floating ice, but shallow enough to leave the rocks exposed. The surface ice should be thin “windowpane” ice, but strong enough to break into big panels that can bully the rocks. Finally, the freezing nights need to be followed by sunny days with light winds, which drive the cracking ice across the lake.

A series of wet winter storms created the perfect conditions from December 2013 through February 2014. Hundreds of rocks scooted across Racetrack Playa five times in 10 weeks.

“Basically, the rocks move for about one minute in a million minutes,” Lorenz told Live Science. “You have to be there at the right time, and the right time is generally one of the least hospitable times to be there.”

Playa passion

Reaching Racetrack Playa requires a bone-jarring ride down a 28-mile gravel road. The remoteness has never deterred anyone obsessed with solving the riddle of the rocks. The first experiments here started in the 1940s and have never stopped. [Hell on Earth: Image Tour of Death Valley]

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A few years ago, two California cousins who grew up with a love of the desert decided to tackle the Racetrack Playa problem. Richard Norris is the biologist and Jim Norris is the engineer. They nabbed rare National Park Service permits to install equipment and sensors in Racetrack Playa.

“It’s almost the purest form of doing science, for discovery’s sake, rather than because your reputation is tied up in it,” Richard Norris said.

In the winter of 2011, with the help of family and friends, the Norris clan lugged 15 imported rocks with motion-activated GPS units built by Jim Norris onto Racetrack Playa. (The Park Service didn’t want the natural rocks disturbed.) They also installed a weather station to track wind gusts.

They waited for the rocks to move, but there was never any water.

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Two years later, Lorenz, the planetary scientist, saw the weather station and tracked down the team at a research meeting held in Death Valley in November 2013. The Norris group was easy to find — they had matching T-shirts blazed with “Slithering Stones Research Initiative.” Over beers, the researchers decided to join forces.

Lorenz has been investigating the sailing stones since 2006. He came to Death Valley to study the dust devils as an analog for conditions on Mars, but he also became fascinated by Racetrack Playa.

Right place, right time

In December 2013, the team hit the jackpot. They discovered the playa was slicked with water three inches (7 cm) deep. Overnight, the pond froze and when the sun rose the next morning and cracked the ice, the rocks set sail. It was all caught on camera.

Hundreds of rocks were in motion, Norris said. “The ice was just crackling and popping and making all these noises across the playa.”

Some rocks moved in concert, even though they were hundreds of feet apart, while others creeped independently. The rocks inched along at gridlock speed, a few inches per second (2 to 5 meters per minute). The creeping could barely be detected at a distance. [World’s Most Famous Rocks]

Rocks traveled more than 200 feet (60 m) and remained in motion for a few seconds to 16 minutes. They would often move more than once before reaching their final resting place. By itself, the ice carved furrows that resemble the rockless trails. The remains were blown up into shattered piles on the playa’s far shore.

Finding themselves at the end of an enigma, both Norris and Lorenz said they were convinced the detective work wasn’t over yet. For instance, no one ever saw the gigantic playa boulders budge an inch, so another process may be at work on the biggest rocks.

“I know there are people who like the mystery of it and will probably be somewhat disappointed that we’ve solved it,” Norris said. “It’s a fascinating process, and in many ways I hope that there’s more to be discovered. Never say never.”

SpaceX Delays Falcon Launch After Test Vehicle Explosion

Launch of SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 rocket is on hold, pending a review after a related test vehicle self-destructed during a flight test last week.

The company had planned to launch its 12th Falcon 9 rocket early Wednesday to put a communications satellite into orbit for Asia Satellite Telecommunications Holdings. It would have been the second launch this month for Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, which is paying SpaceX about $110 million for the two flights.

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SpaceX decided late Tuesday afternoon to postpone the launch so engineers could “triple-check” if there are any failure scenarios that have been overlooked.

Initial analysis shows no direct link between the problem that caused SpaceX’s Falcon 9R development vehicle to self-destruct on Friday about 17 seconds after launch from the company’s McGregor, Texas, facility.

The Falcon 9R problem stemmed from a blocked sensor port, company founder and chief executive Elon Musk said in a statement released late Tuesday.

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“Had the same … problem occurred with an operational Falcon 9, it would have been outvoted by several other sensors. That voting system was not present on the test vehicle,” Musk wrote.

“What we do want to triple-check is whether even highly improbable corner case scenarios have the optimal fault detection and recovery logic. This has already been reviewed by SpaceX and multiple outside agencies, so the most likely outcome is no change,” he added.

The extra analysis will delay the AsiaSat launch one to two weeks.

Rock-Eating Microbes Found in Buried Antarctic Lake

A large and diverse family of hearty rock-eating bacteria and other microorganisms live in a freshwater lake buried a half-mile beneath Antarctic ice, new research confirms.

The finding not only adds another extreme environment where life thrives on Earth, but raises the prospect that similar species could have lived or are still living on Mars.

NASA’s ongoing Curiosity rover mission, for example, already has found that the planet most similar to Earth in the solar system once had the chemical constituents needed to support microbial life.

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The new research, published in this week’s Nature, confirms initial studies 20 years ago that found microbes in refrozen water samples retrieved from Lake Vostok, the largest subglacial Antarctic lake.

Scientists at that time were not on a life-hunting expedition and the indirect sampling process later raised questions about those results.

“People weren’t really thinking about ecosystems underneath the ice. The conventional wisdom was that they don’t exist, it’s a place that’s too extreme for this kind of thing,” Louisiana State University biologist Brent Christner told Discovery News.

For the new study, Christner and colleagues analyzed samples directly retrieved from another subglacial lake, known as Lake Whillans, which lies beneath about a half-mile of ice on the lower portion of the Whillans Ice Stream in West Antarctica.

The lake is part of an extensive and evolving subglacial drainage network, Christner noted in the Nature paper.

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Scientists discovered at least 3,931 microbial species or groups of species in the lake waters, many of which use inorganic compounds as an energy source.

With little surface melt in the area, it is unlikely that water has made its way through the half-mile of ice to reach the lake. Instead, scientists believe the water comes from geothermal heating at the base of the lake and through frictional melting during ice flows.

Any microbes in the water, therefore, most likely survive on energy and nutrients from melting ice, crushed rock, sediment beneath the ice and recycling of materials from dead micro-organisms, glaciologist Martyn Tranter, with the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, wrote in a related paper in Nature.

“What I find about icy environments on Earth is that, potentially, they are very similar to other icy environments, for example on Mars,” Tranter told Discovery News.

“Conditions are right (on Mars) for there to be liquid water at the bed. The right types of rocks are present which contain reduced (compounds) and if there are oxidizing agents present, then microbes can make a living shuttling electrons between reduced compounds and oxidized compounds,” he said.

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Mars scientist Christopher McKay, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., isn’t convinced.

“I don’t like to be unenthusiastic about these results but I don’t see much of any implication for Mars or the ice-covered oceans of the outer solar system,” McKay wrote in an email to Discovery News.

“First it is clear that the water sampled is from a system that is flowing through ice and out to the ocean. Second, and related to this, the results are not indicative of an ecosystem that is growing in a dark nutrient-limited system. They are consistent with debris from the overlying ice — known to contain micro-organisms — flowing though and out to the ocean,” McKay said.

“Interesting in its own right, but not a model for an isolated ice-covered ecosystems,” he added.

Scientists don’t know how long ice sheets have covered Antarctica. “Some folks think that within the last half-million years maybe the West Antarctica ice sheet melted away to not very much,” Tranter said.

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Since Lake Whillans is at the edge of the West Antarctic ice sheet, sections could have been open to the atmosphere within the last half-million years.

“It’s possible that microbes, which are blown everywhere by the wind, were dropped onto a much-reduced West Antarctic ice sheet, since covered by ice, and they’ve managed to (exist) under the ice every since,” Tranter said.

“It’s also possible that the type of microbes found in marine sediments … carry on regardless of whether there is an ice sheet on top of them or not,” he added.

Scientists plan additional studies to try to determine how the organisms came to exist in the cold, dark waters beneath Antarctica.