Liquid water lake discovered on Mars

Katie Ramirez
July 28, 2018

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 results appear today in the journal Science.

But maybe, just maybe, that life would have been able to follow the water - to move underground, where it might have found a niche, in a dark salty lake, buried beneath the ice of Mars's southern polar cap.

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. Although they pass relatively unscathed through most substances, these pulses reflect back up to the spacecraft each time they encounter boundaries between different materials, such as the interface of ice and bedrock.

The surface is mostly ice and dust for about 1.5 kilometers, but as the radar went deeper the scientists detected a layer that had a particularly bright reflection. Scientists think that the lake they've identified under the Martian ice cap is also briny.

"They haven't seen the light of day for hundreds of thousands of years", he said. Scientists have also confirmed that Mars, which is cold, barren and dry at the moment, was home to plenty of liquid water 3.6 billion years ago. Life, many astrobiologists speculate, may have had no difficulty getting started there.

"This took us long years of data analysis and struggles to find a good method to be sure that what we were observing was unambiguously liquid water", said study co-author Enrico Flamini, chief scientist at the Italian Space Agency during the research. There are hundreds of this of subglacial lake on Earth, mostly in Antarctica.

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Whether below an Earthly glacier or a Martian ice cap, the mechanism for melting is much the same: heat trickling up from below combines with the vast bulk of an insulating blanket of material pressing down from above to form lakes of meltwater. "This thrilling discovery is a highlight for planetary science and will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of Mars, the history of water on our neighbor planet and its habitability", he said. In the late 1980s, Steve Clifford, a researcher now at the Planetary Science Institute, began exploring how similar hydrological activity could occur under both Mars's southern and northern polar caps, and whether it might feed meltwater into worldwide aquifers he hypothesized should exist beneath the planet's permafrost.

The reason people are excited about this discovery is because on Earth, everywhere you find liquid water, you find life.

"This finding is potentially of enormous significance", says Clifford, who was not involved with the study.

This discovery represents the best lead so far on potential Martian life. If you do have liquid water as shallow as 1.5 kilometers beneath the surface [at Planum Australe], then liquid water is also likely to be present at greater depths here. They've turned to the icy regions, which contain ice caps of water and Carbon dioxide that may hide liquid water beneath.

If it were possible to drill over a kilometre into Mars into the newly discovered lake, he said he would bet there was life there too.

For the water to remain liquid under the cold ice at low temperature and pressure, it must be a brine saturated with perchlorate salts that lower the freezing point of water. MARSIS's wavelength is over 300 feet and can penetrate deeper, whereas SHARAD's is 50 feet and scours closer to the surface.

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