Published: Thu, July 26, 2018
Research | By Clarence Powell

Possible lake spotted under a polar ice cap-on Mars

Possible lake spotted under a polar ice cap-on Mars

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.

Twenty-nine "radar profiles" of this area were taken using radio pulses, creating a picture of the layers underneath the ice caps, at least mile beneath the surface of Mars.

In recent years, planetary scientists and astrobiologists have been scouring the Red Planet for water, one of the requirements for life as we know it.

Researchers have found evidence of an existing body of water on Mars, according to the BBC. Analysis of that data had already identified a highly reflective region beneath the thickest part of the southern ice cap in an area called the Planum Australe.

From May of 2012 through December of 2015 the Mars Express radar mapped an area near the south pole of Mars.

"This subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments", Roberto Orosei, principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper, said in a press release.

"I think this is extremely strong evidence that there is liquid water beneath the poles in this south polar layered terrain on Mars, which is extremely exciting", says Ellen Stofan, the John and Adrienne Mars Director at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

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In order to remain liquid in such cold conditions (the research team estimate between -10°C and -30° where it meets the ice above), the water likely has a great many salts dissolved in it.

A team of Italian researchers on Wednesday announced they have discovered a large saltwater lake.

Because it is located beneath the polar ice cap, the temperature in the lake is expected to be below the freezing point of pure water.

But does this mean there's other life out there? It therefore remains an open question whether the water is warm enough for life; perhaps Martian extremophiles are even more extreme than their cold weather terrestrial counterparts.

Billions of years ago, Mars was a much more Earth-like place where water pooled in seas, carved enormous canyons and bubbled from hot springs. The lake could be a possible habitat for life, the report said. Another problem is that SHARAD, the Shallow Radar instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, operates at a higher frequency designed for studying ice on the surface. Data from NASA's Cassini orbiter, even though the mission ended in 2017, continues to provide researchers with evidence of organics under the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus, although they can't yet tell if geology or biology produced those organics (Cassini simply wasn't equipped to tell the difference).

For as long as anyone can remember, Mars was the planet that scientists, astronomers and stargazers looked to and wondered 'is there life out there?'. "The normal interpretation would be we have discovered a subglacial lake and people would drill and find if that's true", Orosei said. Using the patterns they form as they're reflected, inferences can be made about what's hiding underneath the surface. "Because of this, there is no reason to conclude that the presence of subsurface water on Mars is limited to a single location".

"It will require flying a robot there, which is capable of drilling through 1.5 kilometres of ice", he explained.

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