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Researchers Detect Evidence of Lake Beneath the Surface of Mars

26 July 2018

Scientists have discovered what they believe is a lake hidden below a mile of ice at the south pole of Mars.

Richard Zurek, the chief scientist in the Mars program office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said the complex, nearly chaotic structure of the ice caps could affect the radar signals in unexpected ways.

The ISA team's findings will appear in this week's issue of the journal Science, they will reignite speculation about the planet's geology and the potential for life on Mars. "This thrilling discovery is a highlight for planetary science and will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of Mars, the history of water on our neighbor planet and its habitability", he said.

Orosei and co. used MARSIS to measure a section of Mars' canyon-filled southern ice cap called Planum Australe, which had been returning abnormal radar readings for a section of land in that area, between May 2012 and December 2015.

Located under a layer of Martian ice, the lake is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) wide, said the report led by Italian researchers in the USA journal Science.

"There are all the ingredients for thinking that life can be there", Enrico Flamini, project manager for the MARSIS radar instrument on Mars Express, said today during a Rome news conference to discuss the results.

But so far, no clear evidence of liquid water has turned up, but the new evidence gives some strong hints that it might be there.

Although the temperature is expected to be below the freezing point of pure water, Orosei noted 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.

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

The body of water is about 20 kilometres across and, if confirmed, would be the first evidence of permanent water on the Red Planet. The surface is scored by old gorges, canyons, beaches, ocean basins and giant volcanoes, whose eruptions could have kept things riled up on the planet. 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.

That life, however, would have to contend with another key factor making its aquatic environs possible: mineral salts that leach out of rocks and sediments to act as antifreeze.

MARSIS uses radar pulses that go deep into the surface of Mars.

One of the ingredients that scientists look for in the search for life is water - not just trace amounts of humidity or ice that freezes and vaporizes, but stable sources of water - such as an underground lake or aquifer. 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.

But until now evidence from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument, MARSIS, the first radar sounder ever to orbit another planet, remained inconclusive. And in recent years, scientists actually drilled deep beneath the Antarctic ice into one of these, the subglacial Lake Whillans, which had been cut off from the surface for millions of years.

"It will require flying a robot there, which is capable of drilling through 1.5 kilometres of ice", he explained. On Earth those lakes are often connected by channels, forming branching riverlike networks of water that extend across vast spaces beneath the ice.

Researchers Detect Evidence of Lake Beneath the Surface of Mars