Researchers spot what looks like a standing ‘lake’ of water on Mars

Researchers spot what looks like a standing ‘lake’ of water on Mars

Pablo Tucker
July 25, 2018

The team gathered data using a sophisticated radar sensor known as MARSIS aboard the Mars Express spacecraft.

It is believed that there is a lake about 1.5km underneath the planet's south polar ice cap, which is about 20km wide.

The body of water is about 20 kilometres across and, if confirmed, would be the first evidence of permanent water on the Red Planet.

But researchers are excited about the potential for future finds, because if liquid water could be found at Mars' south pole, it might be elsewhere too. But there hasn't been evidence of stable bodies of water until now, the researchers said.

"I think this is extremely strong evidence that there is liquid water beneath the poles in this south polar layered terrain on Mars, which is extremely exciting", says Ellen Stofan, the John and Adrienne Mars Director at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

"This is the place on Mars where you have something that most resembles a habitat, a place where life could subsist", said planetary scientist Roberto Orosei of Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Italy, who led the research published in the journal Science.

The tool is called the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), and was created to find subsurface water by sending radar pulses that penetrate the surface and ice caps.

The lake is approximately circular with a diameter of about 12 miles.

If others are detected and a network of subglacial lakes exists like on Earth, he said, that could indicate liquid water has persisted for millions of years or even dating back to 3-1/2 billion years ago when Mars was a more hospitable planet.

The radar profile of this area is similar to that of lakes of liquid water found beneath the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets on Earth, suggesting that there is a subglacial lake at this location on Mars. "It will open up a very interesting area of science on Mars", he says. They've turned to the icy regions, which contain ice caps of water and Carbon dioxide that may hide liquid water beneath. Such migrations raise the possibility of the same thing happening on Mars - as the water retreated, life moved deeper underground.

It remains to be seen if more subsurface reservoirs of water will be found or whether the newly discovered one is some sort of quirk, Orosei said. The data also ruled out liquid CO2, which is not polarized like water and thus has low permittivity.

Mars is very cold, but the water might have been kept from freezing by dissolved salts. Water survives frozen in polar ice caps and in subsurface ice deposits.

But so far, no clear evidence of liquid water has turned up, but the new evidence gives some strong hints that it might be there. "This is something that is to us the tell tale sign of the presence of water", says Prof Orosei.

Mars Express orbiting Mars with a cross section of radar echoes superimposed and tilted 90 degrees.

There is already speculation about the presence of these "extremophiles" in the salty subsurface oceans discovered inside some of the icy moons in our solar system.

Whether microbial forms of life could lie within is a matter of debate. "However, that also indicates that there might be much more liquid water in the Martian subsurface in other regions which we can not detect easily with MARSIS and SHARAD".

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