Scientists discover 'giant liquid water lake' on Mars

Image Source NASA  JPL-Caltech  MSSS  MGN

The find is consistent with what scientists have been saying for years about the prospects for subsurface water on Mars, and is likely to give a boost to the search for Red Planet life. But a body of liquid water has remained elusive for decades. The weight of kilometres worth of ice above it could also be keeping the water in a liquid state, the researchers say. What they're calling a 20km wide "lake" can apparently be found under the planet's south polar ice cap. There have been various reports over the years of finding evidence that water ONCE existed in large quantities on the Red Planet. Water is considered a fundamental ingredient for life.

But what about life on Mars? "There's enough energy, but the problem we ran into is we didn't have a hydraulic system to keep it going".

Having the possibility of accessing water sources could also help humans to survive in a future manned mission to this neighboring planet of Earth.

Mars researcher Ali Bramson is a graduate associate at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson. But, he cautions, "I'd say it's not quite the smoking gun".

"We came thus to the conclusion that the only possible explanation for the bright reflection was the presence of liquid water", he said. Researchers have also likened the discovery to Antarctica's Lake Vostok.

Lake Whillans is buried some 800m below the ice in West Antarctica.

If microbial life forms are there, it is a matter of debate.

The technology was initially developed so the military could locate mines, but today, GPR is used in all sorts of applications, such as finding avalanche victims, micro-fissures in constructions, small archaeological objects - and, now, water on Mars! In comparison, salty ocean water freezes at 28.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That suggests that the water is brim full of salts, allowing it to melt. Similar organisms could survive just fine in the lake.

Much like our own ice sheets, the polar ice caps change depending on the climate and act as archives for what has happened in the past.

Scientists aren't even exactly sure what to call the body of water, which they detected by analyzing radar echoes gathered over three years by the orbiting Mars Express spacecraft. The discovery of the lake, more specifically, was based on information collected by the instrument between May 2012 and December 2015.

For the past 12 years MARSIS has mapped the Martian underground using beams of low-frequency radar pulses, which can penetrate up to several kilometers beneath the surface.

A screengrab from animation of the Martian poles with ice caps.

And today it has been announced that scientists have discovered large pools of liquid underneath the planet's polar ice caps. The analogous Antarctic lakes are chock full of minerals that make them extremely briny-around 200 PSU, or practical salinity units.

Ground-penetrating radar works by measuring what's known as permittivity, which describes the electrical properties of a material through which radar travels. The higher the chances of liquid water at a site, the more important it is to explore it. The antenna on the spacecraft receives the radar waves returned by the rock before the pulse returned by the water.

The Mars Express hasn't been alone in its quest.

Outside experts have not been able to confirm these findings with other radar detections, like SHARAD, the Shallow Radar sounder onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Artistic impression of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars, superimposed to a color mosaic of a portion of Planum Australe. "The main difference between the two radars is the wavelength", Holt said.

"If there's really liquid water at the base, it should be showing up in SHARAD", Holt said.

The surface is mostly ice and dust for about 1.5 kilometers, but as the radar went deeper the scientists detected a layer that had a particularly bright reflection. So far, more than 400 such lakes have been found beneath the surface of the frozen continent. Truth is, with the current technology on Mars, we can not be certain that water has been found, but several signs are pointing that way. It's the most obvious question on everyone's mind right now. Drilling down to the reservoir would be a straightforward solution, but the technical challenges of drilling miles deep a foreign planet are daunting. Could there be life there, beneath the ice? Sending such a payload to Mars would be prohibitively expensive. We're living in very interesting times!

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