Two years ago scientists detected a lake sitting underneath the Martian south pole. Now, they’ve confirmed it and also found several water bodies.
In 2018, a team of Italian researchers used radar data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) orbiting Mars Express spacecraft, to detect a lake of liquid water sitting 1.5 kilometers below the surface of Mars. The lake, which is about 20 kilometers long, lies near the south pole, at the base of an area of thick glacial ice called the South Polar Layered Deposits.
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Those radar observations were made by an instrument called Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS).
The instrument sends radar pulses that can penetrate the surface and ice caps of Mars. Scientists can then measure those pulses as they bounce back towards the spacecraft. Thus, allowing them to delve into the planet without actually touching it.
Now, after a new analysis of the complete MARSIS data set (composing over 134 radar collection campaigns), the same researchers have confirmed the presence of that lake — and found three more. Each of those lakes is less than 50 kilometers away from the location of the first.
The team detected some areas of high reflectivity that they say indicate bodies of liquid water trapped under more than one kilometer of Martian ice.
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The newfound lakes are spread over about 75,000 square kilometers — an area approximately one-fifth the size of Germany. The largest, central lake measures 30 kilometers across and is surrounded by three smaller lakes, each a few kilometers wide.
The only reason that water has been able to stay liquid despite frigid temperatures on Mars is that it’s likely very briny (or salty). Salts can significantly lower the freezing point of water. So don’t expect to drink it.
Access to water is crucial for future Martian colonists. But even if this water could be desalinated, accessing it would require intense drilling. There’s a lot more surface ice at the Martian poles that’s much easier to harvest.
But what makes this new discovery so exciting is that these underground lakes could be home to extraterrestrial life. On Earth, we have extremophiles, microbes that survive in environments once thought not to be able to sustain life.
The same could happen on Mars. Some microbial life might’ve evolved to withstand the extreme conditions of these salty subglacial lakes and made a home for itself.
The researchers call for future work to better examine Mars, its chemistry – and whether there might be any traces of what they call “astrobiological activity”, or alien life.
The researchers reported their discovery on 28 September in Nature Astronomy.