Italian researchers have detected the existence of liquid water on Mars, raising hopes that life will be eventually found on the Red Planet.
The team, using radar instruments (MARSIS) aboard a European Space Agency orbiter, say they found a lake under the polar cap that stretches about 20km across and 1.5km deep.
The lake likely stays liquid due to salts from Martian rocks dissolving into the water, coupled with the pressure of the ice above.
Australian scientists are stunned by the find, with one comparing it to science fiction becoming fact.
Dr Brendan Burns, a microbiologist and astrobiologist from The University of New South Wales, says the find is intriguing evidence for the presence of life below the ice at the south pole on Mars.
“While the surface of Mars is inhospitable, there is the fascinating possibility that microbial life could survive and flourish in sub-glacial Martian waters,” she says.
“There is evidence on Earth of substantial microbial life in the waters below the poles – and even microbes that can survive within ice veins.
“Whether similar scenarios are occurring on Mars remain to be experimentally established, but this finding of potential liquid water beneath the surface of Mars opens up fascinating areas of space exploration.”
Life deep beneath the Antarctic
Warwick Holmes, the executive director of Space Engineering in the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering at the University of Sydney, also says the discovery of liquid water could provide the first evidence of life outside our own planet.
“A similar situation has been discovered here on Earth, 4km below the ice of Antarctica, in Lake Vostok, where scientists have observed very primitive life in an area that is equally devoid of light and likely at similar temperatures,” he says.
“This bacterial life have been able to survive without the regular energy sources that we know are necessary to metabolize life on the surface of Earth using sunlight for example.
“What we tend to think here on Earth is that if there is liquid water, there is a good chance for life. Lake Vostok is a great analogue for the slim possibility that basic lifeforms might exist deep under the surface of Mars in a similar liquid environment.
“I predict future spacecraft mission to Mars and engineers are going to be working very hard to design methods to sample this remote water source from this newly discovered subterranean Martian lake.
“This is currently 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.”
You wouldn’t want to swim in it
Alan Duffy, an astronomer from Swinburne University and the lead scientist of Australia’s Science Channel, says the liquid water is not a lake that you would want to swim in.
The water would be a brine mixed with perchlorate salts.
“It’s those salts that keep the water from freezing, familiar to anyone who can drive on ice-free roads in winter after the salt gritters have been at work,” he says.
“The underground water might exist as a lake trapped beneath rock layers or mixed in with Martian soil to create a salty sludge, but either way, at 20km across, there is a lot of it.
“There’s nothing special about this location other than the MARSIS radar on the Mars Express spacecraft is most sensitive to that region meaning there are likely similar water deposits below the ground all across Mars.
“The ending of (movie) Total Recall where Arnold Schwarzenegger melts vast ice reserves just became less science fiction and more science fact.”
Fred Watson, from the Australian Astronomical Observatory in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, says Mars has many striking similarities with our own planet.
“Its axial tilt and day-length produce a climate that is a chilly analogue of Earth’s, with polar caps that mimic those of our own world’s,” he says.
“For more than three decades, planetary scientists have wondered whether that similarity extends to hidden lakes beneath the ice-caps, as we find under Earth’s Antarctic ice-sheet.
“This is a discovery of extraordinary significance, and is bound to heighten speculation about the presence of living organisms on the Red Planet.
“Caution needs to be exercised, however, as the concentration of salts needed to keep the water liquid could be fatal for any microbial life similar to Earth’s. With no immediate means of sampling the water, the jury remains out as to the possibility of the newly-discovered lake harbouring life.”
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