Published: Fri, July 27, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Underground lake found on Mars, raising possibility of life

Underground lake found on Mars, raising possibility of life

Radar echoes have revealed liquid water beneath the south polar ice cap on Mars, marking a major turning point in our exploration of the red planet as a potentially habitable world.

Researchers collected more than three years of radar data from the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. But that feature had been ascribed to a boundary between the dust-containing ice that dominates Mars' surface and a layer of pure water ice that is expected to exist below that. The radar profile of this sub-surface Martian lake is similar to lakes found under the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets here on Earth, this suggests that there is indeed a subglacial lake on Mars. About 1,500 meters below the surface, Mars Express has detected a very unusual material, stretching for about 20 kilometers.

"The fact that it's buried underneath the surface isn't a big surprise, because liquid water can not exist on the surface of Mars, it's simply not possible because of the atmospheric pressure is too thin", Enright said. "It's taken them many years to really calibrate the instrument used to be sure what is underneath the surface really exists", Leo Enright, space commentator and member of the Board of Governors of the School of Cosmic Physics at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, told Al Jazeera. One NASA expert said more radar scans with different tools will help rule out false positives.

Liquid water is essential for all forms of life that we know of. There, as on Mars, the surface is barren, but is more hospitable farther down.

"Water is there", Enrico Flamini, the former chief scientist of the Italian Space Agency who oversaw the research, said during a news conference.

Salts in the lake are believed to have kept the water - which has a temperature as low as -68C (-90F) - from freezing over.

Mars's southern polar ice cap
Mars’s southern polar ice cap

Roberto Orosei, principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper said, "This subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments", in an ESA statement.

"Caution needs to be exercised, however, as the concentration of salts needed to keep the water liquid could be fatal for any microbial life similar to Earth's".

When Earth and Mars are this close to each other, the planet appears very bright in the sky, making it much easier to locate with a telescope or the naked eye.

New findings from Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

If it were possible to drill a mile into Mars into the newly discovered lake, he said he would bet there was life there too."I've been studying life in ice for 35 years", he said. They found bacteria still living there in complete isolation. "We've been finding life in places it shouldn't be according to our current thinking of life". They were not the first successful landing-that credit belongs to the Soviet Union's Mars 3 lander-but they were the first landers to complete their task, which was to directly sample the surrounding soil, rocks and air while looking for signs of life.

Where can you find Mars?

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