Liquid water on Mars makes the planet tougher to explore

Gwen Vasquez
July 27, 2018

But a body of liquid water has remained elusive for decades.

The announcement by Italian researchers that they had used radar to detect a 12-mile-wide lake under the surface of Mars has raised the tantalizing possibility that there's life on the Red Planet.

Discovered by a team of Italian scientists using three year's worth of data from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, the potential lake is at least a few meters deep, and might be a fixed, steady feature of the subsurface. In 1987, the astronomer Stephen M. Clifford theorized that liquid water might be hiding, deep below the planet's polar ice caps. And while that would require "technological developments that at the moment are not available", the study's lead author, Dr Roberto Orosei of the National Institute for Astrophysics, said the researchers nonetheless have high confidence in their results.

Radar instruments like Marsis examine the surface and immediate subsurface of the planet by sending out a signal and examining what is bounced back.

The temperatures at the base of Mars' southern polar icecap are expected to reach about negative 90 degrees F (negative 68 degrees C), well below the freezing point of pure water. The Mars Express team (otherwise known as MARSIS) believe that this new area they have found is actually a lake of sorts sitting below the Martian surface. This is the first time that they've found a sustained body of water on the planet. Where this water went and how, taking most of Mars' atmosphere with it, is one of the great and ominous environmental mysteries of our time.

The scientists explained that radar signals bounce back to the Mars Express in various different ways, depending on what material they have found - and according to the Italian team, the new signals picked up over Mars' south pole could be explained only by a large underground mass of water. There are hundreds of this of subglacial lake on Earth, mostly in Antarctica.

Twenty-nine observations were made between 2012 and 2015 in the Planum Australe region at the south pole using the MARSIS radar on ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft. The 200 km square study area is indicated in the left-hand image and the radar footprints

Twenty-nine observations were made between 2012 and 2015 in the Planum Australe region at the south pole using the MARSIS radar on ESA's Mars Express spacecraft. A part of Mars where there are underground reservoirs of liquid water would certainly be an exciting place to explore.

Such radars are useful when searching for liquid water, "because water is a very strong radar reflector", he says.

This is the first sign of a persistent water body on the Red Planet. The weight of kilometres worth of ice above it could also be keeping the water in a liquid state, the researchers say. The NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also has been pinging the Martian surface with radar waves looking for water.

What do you think of the study findings? . (Although opinions may differ on that count.) This isn't a lovely pool of water that's going to slake the thirst of Mars colonists in years to come.

"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". It lies 1.5 kilometers (4,921 feet) below the surface and stretches 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) sideways. "I see cells in it, but it's so briny that the cells-I can't get them to metabolize, " he said, referring to the chemical processes that all organisms undertake to survive.

"While the surface of Mars is inhospitable, there is the fascinating possibility that microbial life could survive and flourish in sub-glacial Martian waters", she says.

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