Huge lake of salty water found buried deep in Mars

Huge lake of salty water found buried deep in Mars

Liquid water is considered as one of the necessary ingredients for life to emerge, and finding it on Mars is promising, but scientists have yet to find any evidence that the planet is or was habitable.

In a big scientific breakthrough, scientists have reportedly found a sizable liquid lake on the southern polar plain of Mars.

Despite the obvious excitement surrounding the findings, Mars' surface is "inhospitable to life", according to the Open University's Dr. Manish Patel, and researchers are not any closer to finding life than they were prior to the announcement.

A few years ago, biologists found more than 3,500 unique gene sequences in Lake Vostok which had been isolated for more than 15 million years; Lake Vostok gets no sunlight with it being 4,000 metres below the ice and has a recorded temperature of -89.2c, showing life to be hardy.

A team of astronomers using data collected from the Mars Express spacecraft have published 29 low-frequency radar images collected between May 2012 and December 2015.

The "stunning" find, which was announced yesterday, at last confirms a long-standing theory about submerged water on Mars, in what scientists said was a discovery of "extraordinary significance".

"This is the first body of water it has detected, so it is very exciting", David Stillman, a senior research scientist in the Department of Space Studies at Southwest Research Institute in Texas, told AFP in an email.

Despite having a temperature between -103 and -3°C, the water remains liquid, possibly due to dissolved salts and the pressure of the 1.5km-deep ice sheet covering it. For this study, the Italian researchers revisited that assumption and attempted to determine if pure water ice was consistent with the radar data.

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The body of water is about 20 kilometres across and, if confirmed, would be the first evidence of permanent water on the Red Planet.

This discovery represents the best lead so far on potential Martian life.

For years, "follow the water" has been the mantra of NASA and indeed humanity's search for life somewhere else.

"This is now our best, albeit slim chance of discovering life elsewhere in our Solar System until the more complex missions to Europa or Enceladus, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn we also believe have subterranean water sources". "We can show that there's enough energy to drive chemotrophic life-life that doesn't need sun, but lives on chemistry", he said.

Geophysicist Cassie Stuurman, who was not involved in this particular discovery, but who did discover a Lake Superior-sized glacier under Mars' surface, explained that the way ground penetrating radar works is by sending out radio waves, and then measuring the return waves that are reflected off the surface, and off boundaries between different materials under the surface. Researchers are keenly interested in such reservoirs since they are reminiscent of subglacial lakes in Antarctica, which are teeming with microbial life.

Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the Martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water.

Orosei said the scientists checked other possible explanations, like carbon dioxide ice, for the bright reflections, but those did not match the radar observations.

"Even with those limitations, we've now found that there is likely to be liquid water in the Martian subsurface", Stamenkovic said. The south polar layered deposits - layers of ice and dust - are seen to a depth of about 1.5 km.

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