Astronomers Find Massive Underground Reservoir of Liquid Water on Mars

Science       Liquid water on Mars is no surprise but here’s why it makes the planet tougher to explore
       
       	        Sandhya Ramesh         26 July 2018

All of that water is either locked up in solid form, however, or locked away in the distant past.

But researchers are excited about the potential for future findings because if liquid water can be found at the south pole of Mars it could also be found elsewhere. Unless, that is, one could somehow peer deep beneath its frigid surface to the base of the ice cap some 1.5 kilometers below, where a lake of liquid water almost three times larger than the island of Manhattan may lurk.

As reported in Science, the researchers, led by Roberto Orosei from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, examined radar profiles collected between May 2012 and December 2015 and discovered the evidence of liquid water trapped below the ice.

The team, using radar instruments (MARSIS) aboard a European Space Agency orbiter, say they found a lake under the polar cap that stretches about 20km across and 1.5km deep.

Artistic impression of the Mars Express spacecraft. Credit: USGS ASTROGEOLOGY SCIENCE CENTER, ARIZONA STATE UN.

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

They spent at least two years examining the data to make sure they'd detected water, not ice or another substance. These penetrate its surface but bounce back when they hit a boundary between different materials, such as ice and bedrock. It also dramatically lowers the freezing point of water - which is good, because that region is about -60 Celsius at the surface.

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.

Yet Antarctica's ice sheets were once considered a biological desert, particularly beneath its enormous volumes of ice, Christner said. An underground lake was found near here.

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

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"It sticks out like a sore thumb in the radar data", she said.

The Mars Express hasn't been alone in its quest. The radar cross section has been tilted 90°. Certain areas had "a greater intensity (bright reflections) than the surrounding areas and the surface", intimating at the existence of liquid.

"What the paper found is a region in the south polar layered deposits with unusually high reflective properties", Stuurman explained. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.

There is, and probably will continue to be, debate about the findings of this paper, simply because the implications of this discovery are vast.

"This is an fantastic result that suggests that water on Mars is not a temporary stream, as revealed in previous discoveries, but a body of persistent water that creates the conditions for life over long periods of time", said Alan Duffy, Associate Professor at the University of Swinburne in Australia, who did not participate in the study.

"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".

There is already speculation about the presence of these "extremophiles" in the salty subsurface oceans discovered inside some of the icy moons in our solar system. They can not see the bottom with existing equipment, but they estimate it is at least three feet deep, otherwise they would not have detected it at all.

"This is potentially the first habitat we know of on Mars".

Bramson said the Mars radar community remained curious about why SHARAD didn't detect water below the south pole.

"Getting there and acquiring the final evidence that this is indeed a lake will not be an easy task", says Prof Orosei. "There are microorganisms on Earth that are capable of surviving even in ice". "This will certainly require some technological developments that, at the moment, are not available".

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