Published: Thu, July 26, 2018
Science | By Dan Gutierrez

Liquid water lake found on Mars

Liquid water lake found on Mars

The lake is approximately circular with a diameter of about 12 miles.

The waterbody, more than 1.5 km deep underground, managed to remain unfrozen because it's briny - full of salt - and under huge pressure. Announced today at a press conference in Rome, the results are detailed in a study appearing in the July 26 edition of Science.

Water, of course, is a prerequisite for life as we know it.

Several researchers said it would be crucial to figure out whether this body of water is the only one, or part of an interconnecting body of underground aquifers - in part because a network increases the possibility it could have harboured life. On Earth, microbial life persists down in the dark, frigid waters of one such lake.

"It's exciting and has super interesting implications if it's validated", says Jack Holt, a professor at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. But, he cautions, "I'd say it's not quite the smoking gun".

The Red Planet was likely once rich in liquid water much like Earth, but has since become arid and desolate.

Since then, we've found gaseous water in the atmosphere and frozen water on the ice caps, but until now, we've never found a body of water in liquid form.

In Antarctica, scientists handle a core filled with sediments from the bottom of subglacial Lake Whillans.

Even more amazingly, the Medusae Fossae Formation used to be much, much bigger, but its lightweight, porous composition - vulnerable to erosion over billions of years - means this Medusa is a ghost of her former self. Although if it is, biologists have said that it would be at the limits of habitability. But, if so, it would have to contend with a world in which all moisture quickly vanishes in the thin, cold air, leaving the surface dry as a bone. However, depending upon how briny it is, water can potentially remain liquid down to -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit).

There is liquid water on Mars. The Mars water would have to have a similar make-up to actually be liquid. "There, water is salty and there are single-cell organisms that survive in such an environment, with a metabolism that makes use of the salts in the water", he said.

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In Lake Vostok's case, the frigid water serves as a refuge for species that probably got their start millions of years ago.

Using the MARSIS radar on the Mars Express satellite orbiting Mars, the scientists were able to identify the small lake underneath the South Pole of Earth's closest neighbour.

The scientists analyzed radar profiles, within a 200 km-wide area, collected between May 2012 and December 2015.

The reservoir - which is approximately 20 kms in diameter and is shaped like a rounded triangle - is the first stable body of liquid water ever found on Mars. MARSIS is a low-frequency radar and altimeter that features operation altitudes up to 800 km above the Martian surface for subsurface sounding and up to 1200 km for ionospheric sounding. Its ground-penetrating radar detects boundaries between structures of different dielectric permittivity - a measure of a material's electrical polarisation under the influence of an external electric field. The higher the chances of liquid water at a site, the more important it is to explore it. On Earth, dust is lifted from rock by natural forces of erosion, such as the movement of wind, streams of water, volcanic activity, and the movement of glaciers. That difference in time gives scientists a clue about what type of matter the radar encountered.

"Water tends to collect in lower topography", Orosei said.

The Mars Express hasn't been alone in its quest. Twenty-one years passed before another space probe would successfully enter Martian orbit, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor in 1996.

However, its radar technology varies slightly from the one onboard the Mars Express. "The main difference between the two radars is the wavelength", Holt said. The bright horizontal feature at the top represents the icy surface of Mars in this region.

The radar brightness alone isn't enough to prove that liquid water is responsible.

In May, NASA launched another spacecraft, the InSight Mars lander, that will dig under the surface after it reaches a flat plain just north of the Martian equator in November. "This is something that is to us the tell tale sign of the presence of water", Prof Orosei said.

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