Scientists find underground lake on Mars

AFP
A massive underground lake has been detected for the first time on Mars.
AFP

A massive underground lake has been detected for the first time on Mars, raising hopes that more water — and maybe even life — exists there, international astronomers said Wednesday.

Located under a layer of Martian ice, the lake is about 20 kilometers wide, said the report in the journal Science.

It is the largest body of liquid water ever found on the Red Planet.

“Water is there. We have no more doubt,” co-author Enrico Flamini, the Italian space agency’s Mars Express mission manager, told a press conference.

Mars is now cold, barren and dry but it used to be warm and wet. It was home to plenty of liquid water and lakes at least 3.6 billion years ago.

Scientists are eager to find signs of contemporary water, because such discoveries are key to unlocking the mystery of whether life ever formed on Mars in its past, and whether it might persist today.

“This is a stunning result that suggests water on Mars is not a temporary trickle like previous discoveries but a persistent body of water that provides the conditions for life for extended periods of time,” said Alan Duffy, an associate professor at Swinburne University in Australia, who was not involved in the study.

Being able to access water sources could also help humans survive on a future crewed mission to Earth’s neighboring planet, with NASA aiming to send explorers in the 2030s.

This particular lake, however, would be neither swimmable nor drinkable, and it lies almost 1.6 kilometers beneath the icy surface in a harsh and frigid environment.

Whether microbial forms of life could lie within is a matter of debate.

Some experts are skeptical of the possibility since the lake is so cold and briny, mixed with a heavy dose of Martian salts and minerals.

The temperature is likely below the freezing point of pure water, but the lake can remain liquid due to the presence of magnesium, calcium and sodium. 

“This is a discovery of extraordinary significance, and is bound to heighten speculation about the presence of living organisms on the Red Planet,” said Fred Watson of the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

“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,” added Watson, who was not involved in the research.

The discovery was made using a radar instrument on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, which launched in 2003.

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

MARSIS “then measures how the radio waves propagate and reflect back to the spacecraft,” said the study.

A team of researchers led by Roberto Orosei of the National Institute for Astrophysics in Bologna, Italy, surveyed a region called Planum Australe, located in the southern ice cap of Mars, from May 2012 until December 2015. 

A total of 29 sets of radar samplings showed a “very sharp change in its associated radar signal,” allowing scientists to map the outlines of the lake.

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