Underground lake found on Mars, raising possibility of life

Artistic impression of the Mars Express spacecraft. Credit ESA

Dr Jonathan Lunine, director of the Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science at Cornell University, noted, "If it is liquid water, the intense saltiness would make it hard for life, at least life as known on Earth, to survive in the lake". For the first time, though, new research suggests the Red Planet might now possess a large stable body of liquid water, one that stretches roughly a dozen miles across and is buried under almost a mile of ice.

The findings were based on data collected by radar sounder MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding), which was designed by Italian researchers with a contribution from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Iowa in the United States.

The lake was discovered on the south polar ice cap of Mars and is covered in a sheet of ice, the thickness of which is yet to be determined. MARSIS transmits low-frequency radio pulses at the planet's surface that penetrate the planet's crust and get reflected back when they encounter changes in density or composition.

Deep beneath the surface, however, the weight of overlying soil and glaciers - as well as the potential presence of dissolved salts - could allow water to stay liquid even at what would otherwise be below-freezing temperatures. Just like Earth, Mars has salts (much more than in Earth's oceans) in its water.

The team used a radar instrument on an orbiting spacecraft to detect the body of water underneath Mars's polar ice cap. On Earth, places like these are home to bacteria adapted to the extreme conditions of sub-glacial, briny lakes. With this, radar pulses were sent outward, ultimately bouncing back to the spacecraft. But scientists thought that Mars had lost the majority of its liquid water. The blue triangle indicates an area of very high reflectivity, interpreted as being caused by the presence of a reservoir of water, about a mile below the surface.

However, the planet's climate has since cooled due to its thin atmosphere, leaving most of its water locked up in ice. Researchers are keenly interested in such reservoirs since they are reminiscent of subglacial lakes in Antarctica, which are teeming with microbial life.

Marsis data suggests that an area of high reflectivity is water. Credit USGS ASTROGEOLOGY SCIENCE CENTER ARIZONA STATE UN
Marsis data suggests that an area of high reflectivity is water. Credit USGS ASTROGEOLOGY SCIENCE CENTER ARIZONA STATE UN

Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS operations manager and a co-author of the paper, said the researchers have seen hints of interesting subsurface features suggestive of water for years but "couldn't reproduce the result from orbit to orbit".

"This is the first body of water it has detected, so it is very exciting", David Stillman, a senior research scientist in the Department of Space Studies at Southwest Research Institute in Texas, told AFP in an email. The NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also has been pinging the Martian surface with radar waves looking for water.

"Additional studies will be needed to understand why this is the case", she said, "but I think the case for liquid would have been stronger if both radars had detected a similar signal". Through their three-and-a-half-year effort and 29 passes over the targeted area, they discovered a 20-kilometer-wide lake located 1.5 kilometers below the surface.

"This is now our best, albeit slim chance of discovering life elsewhere in our Solar System until the more complex missions to Europa or Enceladus, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn we also believe have subterranean water sources". This is a milestone in the 54 years of Mars space exploration.

"They haven't seen the light of day for hundreds of thousands of years", he said. Now, if this discovery pans out, it's clear that some large pockets of liquid water still exist on or near the Martian surface.

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