The question of whether life exists on other planets may be partially answered by a new discovery on our own.
A diverse ecosystem of bacteria -- sealed off from the world for more than 3,000 years -- has been found in waters beneath a frozen Antarctic lake. Which is all pretty surprising and fantastic on its own, but also has researchers excited about the possibility life could flourish in other frozen environments throughout the solar system, including Mars.
"We can use these cultivated organisms to better understand the physical or chemical extremes they can tolerate that might be relevant to other icy worlds such as Europa," said co-research leader Alison Murray of the Desert Research Institute.
Murray and other members of the expedition have been drilling down more than 60 feet beneath the frozen surface of Antarctica's biologically isolated (even by Antarctica standards) Lake Vida, where the watery organisms were found in the harsh conditions described in a statement released by the research team.
"Lake Vida, the largest of several unique lakes found in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, contains no oxygen, is mostly frozen and possesses the highest nitrous oxide levels of any natural water body on earth. A briny liquid that is approximately six times saltier than seawater percolates throughout the icy environment that has an average temperature of minus 13.5 degrees centigrade (or 8 degrees Fahrenheit)."
Big Dig: Scientists reach prehistoric lake
So how are these microbes able to survive in this sealed-off, frozen, chemical-heavy world? Research co-leader Christian Fritsen believes it has something to do with those chemicals.
"It's plausible that a life-supporting energy source exists solely from the chemical reaction between anoxic salt water and the rock," he explained.
And that's where we make the leap from the outer limits of the earth, to outer space. Murray notes that "this gives us an entirely new framework for thinking of how life can be supported in cryoecosystems on earth and in other icy worlds of the universe."
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