At 7 p.m. Jan. 26, the camera was lowered a second time. People crowded into the control room to watch the live feed. The camera encountered the same branch at 2,300 feet; the hot water drill had failed to solve the problem. This time, though, in a lucky break, the camera was successfully jostled down past the intersection. People in the control room cheered.
The camera eased down 50 feet. The hole expanded, contracted, then widened again. Then the camera came to rest. A second or two passed before people understood what they were seeing.
The camera lay on a floor of white. Of ice. The hole had dead-ended. “Holy cow,” said someone, in disappointment.
The drillers soon figured out the problem. A sensor on the drill hose wasn’t calibrated properly and had overestimated the length of hose fed into the hole. The drill was stopped at least 100 feet short of the lake.
“When you come down here, you get your nose bloodied up,” said Duling. “It’s all right. We can handle it.” He appeared tired, resigned. “We will drill one more time.”
Twenty-four hours later, on Jan. 27, a banter of dry gallows humor circulated among the drillers. “You guys want to watch Thelma and Louise?” crackled one of them over the radio, a dude with a heavy wrench and thick beard deflecting feelings of anxiety with a chick-flick reference.
“Only if we can hold hands and cry,” replied Gibson into his handheld. Gibson sat in the control room, where people gathered to see the camera descend a third time down the hole, after another round of drilling.
The camera passed 1,600 feet. Undulations in the hole’s circular walls scrolled over the monitor like contours of a cosmic wormhole. Then, the image dissolved in haze. All sense of motion ceased.
A conversation sprang up in the dark room. Was the water cloudy, or had the camera malfunctioned? “Are we still going down?” Gibson asked into his radio.
“We are,” crackled the reply. “Just coming up on 640 meters [2,100 feet].”
Minutes trickled past. The blur on the monitor darkened to brown. Cable “just went slack,” crackled the radio. “We just hit the bottom.” The camera rested 2,626 feet below.
Swirling silt settled. A view of the lake coalesced.
The camera lay on its side, its lens gazing across a muddy floor strewn with clumps. Wisps of mud drifted in the water. The image, knitted in rows of grainy pixels, echoed the first-ever pictures of the Martian surface beamed back by the Viking lander 36 years ago — an image of a place never before seen by humankind.
Contrary to expectations, the water itself was only 5 feet deep, not 25 feet. Radar surveys had overestimated the lake’s depth by mistaking 20 feet of gooey mud forming the lake bed for water, said Tulaczyk during a hastily called meeting. “This lake is old enough to have filled with sediments for the most part.” Notwithstanding that surprise, the team would finally have a chance to look for life beneath the ice sheet.