Scientists discover underground lake on Mars

26 July, 2018, 15:53 | Author: Lucy Floyd
  • Enlarge Image Artistic impression of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars.                  ESA  INAF  Davide Coero Borga

The results were published Wednesday in the journal Science. The water was detected by radar and is situated below the southern polar ice cap of the red planet.

Scientists Roberto Orosei (L), Elena Pettinelli (C) and Enrico Flamini pose near a replica of the Cosmo Sky Med satellite before a news conference where they announce after first-time detection of liquid water on Mars by italian radar Italian radar MARSIS, on board the ESA's Mars at the Italian Space Agency headquarter in Rome, Italy July 25, 2018.

"We interpret this feature as a stable body of liquid water on Mars", the study said.

"For water to exist under the surface it has to be deep and really salty, and that last part is significant because that is exactly the type of place you go look for lifeforms". On Earth, microbial life persists down in the dark, frigid waters of one such lake. "There's enough energy, but the problem we ran into is we didn't have a hydraulic system to keep it going".

For years, "follow the water" has been the mantra of NASA and indeed humanity's search for life somewhere else.

Mars researcher Ali Bramson is a graduate associate at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson. But, he cautions, "I'd say it's not quite the smoking gun". Still, water is water-and it could be a sign of potential life on the Red Planet, or at least a sign of potential support for a colony. It could be a sub-glacial lake, an aquifer, or a layer of sediment saturated with water.

Those early science fiction visions were dashed when the first spacecraft photos of the planet revealed a dry, cratered and lifeless looking surface - a seemingly dead planet. However, depending upon how briny it is, water can potentially remain liquid down to -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit).

The water on Mars, then, is trapped deep under the ice, and you probably wouldn't want to drink it.

The European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter has been circling Mars since 2003. A subsurface radar profile is shown in the right hand panel for one of the Mars orbits. The signals did match radar measurements of under-ice lakes in Greenland and Antarctica.

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It has taken the persistence of scientists working with this subsurface-probing instrument to develop new techniques in order to collect as much high-resolution data as possible to confirm their exciting conclusion. There are microorganisms on Earth that are capable of surviving even in ice. On Earth, dust is lifted from rock by natural forces of erosion, such as the movement of wind, streams of water, volcanic activity, and the movement of glaciers.

The liquid water is locked beneath almost a mile of ice.

"Water tends to collect in lower topography", Orosei said.

The Mars Express hasn't been alone in its quest.

The discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by Nasa's Mars missions. MARSIS is a special kind of radar called ground penetrating radar.

However, its radar technology varies slightly from the one onboard the Mars Express. "The main difference between the two radars is the wavelength", Holt said. SHARAD operates at different frequencies than MARSIS does, but it's also created to pick up subsurface features.

Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the Martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water. "This is something that is to us the tell tale sign of the presence of water", says Prof Orosei.

Still, those challenges don't appear to discourage some scientists.

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