Research

Hurrah! Boffins finally discover liquid water sloshing around on Mars

Hurrah! Boffins finally discover liquid water sloshing around on Mars

Just like Earth, Mars has salts (much more than in Earth's oceans) in its water.

Mars may have liquid water-a huge lake nestled under the ice cap at the planet's southern pole, researchers report today (July 25) in Science.

The reservoir they detected - roughly 12 miles (20 km) in diameter, shaped like a rounded triangle and located about a mile (1.5 km) beneath the ice surface - represents the first stable body of liquid water ever found on Mars.

Currently, vast amounts of water ice lie trapped around the Martian poles.

Some experts are skeptical about that possibility because the lake is cold and brackish, and contains a heavy dose of dissolved Martian salts and minerals.

Radar instruments like Marsis examine the surface and immediate subsurface of the planet by sending out a signal and examining what is bounced back. However, "SHARAD uses higher-frequency radio waves that cannot penetrate as deep as MARSIS can", Pettinelli says.

The Italian scientists said that "bright subsurface reflections are evident within a well-defined, 20-kilometer-wide zone" that was surrounded by "much less reflective areas".

Between March 2012 and December 2015, the researchers got 29 sets of radar readings from Mars's Planum Australe, the southern polar plain.

What they believe to be a lake sits under the planet's south polar ice cap, and is about 20km across. The team then spent nearly a year analyzing the data, and another two years writing their paper and attempting to rule out non-aqueous explanations for what they had seen.

Today, Mars is too cold and dry, and the carbon dioxide atmosphere is too thin, to allow for liquid water at the surface. Life, many astrobiologists speculate, may have had no difficulty getting started there.

Through them, we have found abundant evidence that Mars was once warm and wet. Now it appears not all of that buried watery wealth is frozen after all. The subglacial lake's existence is teased by more than two dozen radar samplings of the regions, which were found to have similar profiles to subglacial lakes on Earth near Greenland and the Antarctic. "A lake, not some kind of meltwater filling some space between rock and ice, as happens in certain glaciers on Earth", Orosei told the British media giant.

The depth of the lake is impossible to determine using radar, which returns echoes from the boundary between rock and the bottom of the ice cap, meaning that the water could be anywhere between being as deep as Earth's Lake Vostok, to being a muddy layer just a meter thick. Researchers haven't detected the same reflective spot with instruments aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, notes Nathaniel Putzig of the Planetary Science Institute in a CNN article. 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. "You have a lot of interfaces that could do odd things to radar signals", said Zurek, who was not involved with the research.

In other words, the best Earth-based analogues for the newly discovered Martian lake are not just habitable, they are inhabited. The Mars water would have to have a similar make-up to actually be liquid.

Previously, there has been some suggestions about water on Mars, like droplets of water condensing on the Phoenix lander or as the possible cause of recurring slope lineae, which are seasonal dark streaks on Martian slopes.

Moreover, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of water and keep the water liquid even at below-freezing temperatures.

There is another satellite orbiting Mars right now, but it hasn't detected what MARSIS did.


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