Published: Fri, July 27, 2018
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

Underground lake detected on Mars

Underground lake detected on Mars

"This bacterial life have been able to survive without the regular energy sources that we know are necessary to metabolize life on the surface of Earth using sunlight for example". Thanks to new data from Mars Express, a 15-year-old satellite, researchers have announced that there is a 12-mile wide lake of liquid - yes, seriously - water below the Mars' South Pole.

"This is just one small study area; it is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered", said Roberto Orosei, principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper published to Science. MARSIS transmits low-frequency radio pulses at the planet's surface that penetrate the planet's crust and get reflected back when they encounter changes in density or composition.

Scientists have suspected for decades that there might be liquid water under the polar ice caps on Mars, partly because we know there are lakes underneath ice caps on Earth, in Greenland and Antarctica.

Although the temperature is expected to be below the freezing point of pure water, they suggested that dissolved salts of magnesium, calcium, and sodium, known to be present in Martian rocks, could be dissolved in the water to form a brine. Time and time again across the entire observing campaign the new MARSIS readings revealed a consistent 20-kilometer-wide bright spot nestled in a bowl-like depression beneath the ice cap in Planum Australe-a feature consistent with a sizable body of liquid water (or, to be fair, with water-saturated sediments more akin to subterranean sludge).

Finding that much water could be a great signpost in our search for life on Mars, but the results should be taken with a grain of salt. Future missions with more advanced technology will undoubtedly help solve the water on Mars mystery.

Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the Martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water. However, previous research has unearthed what appear to be ancient seabeds and river valley networks that show Mars was once covered in rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, and perhaps even seas and oceans.

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The instrument was positioned on board of the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft in 2003, and started scanning Mars' surface in July 2005. Although they pass relatively unscathed through most substances, these pulses reflect back up to the spacecraft each time they encounter boundaries between different materials, such as the interface of ice and bedrock. Steve Clifford, a scientist who specializes in water on Mars at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, told that while the Italian team's argument was "very persuasive" it is "not conclusive". The blue triangle indicates an area of very high reflectivity, interpreted as being caused by the presence of a reservoir of water, about a mile below the surface.

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.

This is the first sign of a persistent water body on the Red Planet. The NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also has been pinging the Martian surface with radar waves looking for water.

"This finding is potentially of enormous significance", says Clifford, who was not involved with the study.

But don't worry if you miss Mars Close Approach this year. The project to drill through the ice of Lake Vostok took years - the project began in 1996, but was not completed until 2012, although there were several lengthy stops. "I see cells in it, but it's so briny that the cells-I can't get them to metabolize, " he said, referring to the chemical processes that all organisms undertake to survive. "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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