Underground Lake of Liquid Water Discovered on Mars

Sky-watchers should get a bright view of Mars as it draws closer to Earth than it’s been in 15 years. This image was provided by NASA

Do we need to go to Mars to find out what's in this lake? At upper right is the planet's southern ice cap.

The Planum Australe lake may not be the only sub-surface body of water on Mars, but MARSIS is limited by its spatial resolution, which would prevent it from finding bodies of water smaller than the Planum Australe lake.

All of that water is either locked up in solid form, however, or locked away in the distant past.

The long-sought discovery, the largest detection of liquid water on the Red Planet yet, raises the tantalizing possibility of a very cold, very salty niche where life might have once existed - or even persisted. Using ice-penetrating radar from orbit, researchers from the Italian Space Agency reportedly found a lake deep beneath the Red Planet's polar ice caps.

The supposed lake was discovered using radar technology on the Mars Express spacecraft which relayed data between mid-2012 and late 2015.

Finding more liquid water on Mars may mean moving beyond radar technology, which is limited to detecting large quantities of water close to the surface. Credits: USGS Astrogeology Science Center, Arizona State University, ESA, INAF. Such salts are known to exist in abundance in some Martian rocks, and are the most likely cause of the dewlike droplets and crater-wall rivulets previously observed on the planet's surface. The map stretches about 20 kilometers across and the features identified by the scientists look eerily similar to signals generated by lakes found beneath Greenland and Antarctica on Earth. The miles-thick Antarctic ice sheet both protects water from freezing air and imposes enough pressure to lower water's melting point.

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 keeps the lake at just below freezing temperatures, and it maintains a liquid state due to the enormous weight of the ice above pressing down on it.

The water is likely to be below the freezing point for water (32°F or 0°C) given its location beneath the ice cap, but the presence of minerals such as magnesium, calcium and sodium perchlorate in the soil of the northern plains of Mars, "support the presence of liquid water at the base of the polar deposits".

So, how did MARSIS find this lake?

This image provided by the ESA  INAF shows an artist’s rendering of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars. At upper right is the planet’s southern ice cap. The inset image at lower right shows the area where radar readings

"So, if there's a boundary between air and ice, or ice and dust, or ice and water, we get a reflection back", Stuurman said.

There is life virtually wherever there is water on Earth.

This image provided by the ESA/INAF shows an artist's rendering of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars. The radar cross section has been tilted 90°.

"We came thus to the conclusion that the only possible explanation for the bright reflection was the presence of liquid water", he said.

"The really exciting thing is that this is a stable body of liquid water that was observed in the radar data over three years, not just droplets that have been observed over a short period of time", says Anja Diez, a glaciologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute who wrote an accompanying commentary about the discovery.

There is, and probably will continue to be, debate about the findings of this paper, simply because the implications of this discovery are huge.

Now that we know for sure that there is a reservoir of liquid water just beneath the planet's surface, astronomers around the globe will be thinking of ways to get down to that water to see what's there.

The question then would be if any life forms could have developed and if they've been able to survive until now, he added.

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