Science & Technology

Researchers find huge reservoir of water beneath Mars’ surface.

Scientists have made a massive breakthrough in the search for life on Mars, the discovery of a huge reservoir of water beneath the planet's surface.  The subsurface 20km lake at the planet's southern pole gives us our strongest sign yet that Mars could support living organisms. 
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Scientists have made a massive breakthrough in the search for water on Mars. The discovery of a huge reservoir of water beneath the planet’s surface.  The subsurface 20km lake at the planet’s southern pole gives us our strongest sign yet that Mars could support living organisms. 

The discovery is significant as it is the first time that a stable body of water has been discovered on Mars. Something that scientists have been searching for, as a prerequisite for life,  for decades. This finding implies that Mars is capable of sustaining life. It has always been suspected that Mars history saw it possessing liquid water as evidenced by dry river beds and lakes. Other research has uncovered ice deposits on the planet’s surface.

Diagram showing how the MARSIS radar probe works to uncover features of Mars hidden under the surafce

Diagram showing how the MARSIS radar probe works to uncover features of Mars hidden under the surface

A team led by Roberto Orosei a researcher at the University of Bologna used the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft to make the finding. MARSIS uses low-frequency radar to probe beneath the surface of the red planet. The data that is received is then processed onboard the craft and transmitted to Earth.

An artist’s rendering of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars (ESA)

An artist’s rendering of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars. At upper right is the planet’s southern ice cap. The inset image at lower right shows the area where radar readings were made. 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. (Davide Coero Borga/INAF/ESA via AP)

Data recorded between May 2012 and December 2015 showed sharp changes in the radio signals sent through the southern pole. Orosei and his colleagues carefully examined this data to rule out alternative explanations for the changes that would not involve a buried body of water.

The data when examined resembles similar data gathered on Earth in areas covered by ice sheets like Greenland and Antartica. These areas, despite being quite inhospitable, are considered to potentially host microbial life, it was revealed in a study published in journal Science today.

 Roberto Orosei, Elena Pettinelli and Enrico Flamini pose near a replica of the Cosmo Sky Med satellite before a news conference where they announce after first-time detection of liquid water on Mars (REUTERS

Roberto Orosei, Elena Pettinelli and Enrico Flamini pose near a replica of the Cosmo Sky Med satellite before a news conference where they announce after first-time detection of liquid water on Mars (REUTERS)

“This kind of environment is not exactly your ideal vacation or a place where fish would swim,” Orosei said in a press release. “But there are terrestrial organisms that can survive and thrive, in fact, in similar environments. There are microorganisms on Earth that are capable of surviving even in ice.”

The finding was somewhat surprising given that the conditions on this area of Mars are even colder and therefore less hospital than in comparable areas on Earth. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of lifeforms known as ‘extremophiles’  living there.

Scott Hubbard, a professor of astronautics at Stanford University who served as NASA’s first Mars program director in 2000 and was not involved in the new study, called it “tremendously exciting.”

Hubbard continued “Our mantra back then was `follow the water.’ That was the one phrase that captured everything. So this discovery, if it stands, is just thrilling because it’s the culmination of that philosophy.”

Despite knowing the length and width of the water reserve, researchers are unsure of its depth, meaning it could be a true lake or simply a layer of ‘sludge’. The water is likely to be a brine, the salt content being responsible for its continued existence.

The most striking thing about this finding is there is nothing particularly striking about this area of Mars. The only reason the finding has been made here is it is a region sensitive to radar penetration. This means there is a good chance of finding similar reservoirs elsewhere under the surface of the planet.

“It remains to be seen if more subsurface reservoirs of water will be found or whether the newly discovered one is some sort of quirk,” Orosei said.

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