Life on Mars? Scientists discover underground 'lake' at south pole

The south polar ice cap of Mars

However, the same dissolved chemicals that might have kept this water pocket from freezing could also be harmful to life. The planet is now an icy desert.

MARSIS "then measures how the radio waves propagate and reflect back to the spacecraft", said the study.

The reservoir - which is approximately 20 kms in diameter and is shaped like a rounded triangle - is the first stable body of liquid water ever found on Mars.

So instead, they tried to come up with as many other explanations for what they were seeing as possible. It's also a place where extraterrestrial life could be flourishing.

"If there is microbial life operating there, it's operating under conditions that would be at the very limits of what we know life operates under here on Earth", said Brent Christner, a microbiologist at the University of Florida. This water is not exactly hospitable - "it's basically got antifreeze in it", says Andrew Coates, a professor of space physics at University College London who has worked on several space missions. They focused on a region below the surface of Mars' southern polar ice cap, an area suspected for the past 31 years to have an underground lake.

After decades of trying to answer the question of whether Mars has liquid water, scientists appear to have found the answer, and the implications of their discovery could be huge.

"Water is there", Enrico Flamini, the former chief scientist of the Italian Space Agency who oversaw the research, said during a news conference.

MEO  EPA-EFE  REX  Shutterstock Italian astrophysic Roberto Orosei during a press conference at the Italian Space Agency headquarters Rome Italy 25 July 2018. Scientists with National Institute of A
Alessandro Di Meo//EPA-EFE REX Shutterstock Scientis Roberto Orosei announcing the findings during a news conference on Wednesday

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.

Researchers said the lake looked similar to the ones found beneath the Antartic and Greenland. "But that existed 3.8 billion years ago".

There is, and probably will continue to be, debate about the findings of this paper, simply because the implications of this discovery are vast. This makes the choice of target even more exciting. But, if so, it would have to contend with a world in which all moisture quickly vanishes in the thin, cold air, leaving the surface dry as a bone.

Coates' own next mission, the rover Exomars, will set off for the planet in 2020 and is scheduled to arrive in 2021.

The Red Planet was likely once rich in liquid water much like Earth, but has since become arid and desolate. Coates thinks the chance of finding it has just gone up.

A screengrab from animation of the Martian poles with ice caps.

The subsurface lake could be similar to Antarctica's Lake Vostok, or to the subsurface seas thought to exist on the Jovian moon Europa or the Saturnian moon Enceladus. It will require flying a robot there which is capable of drilling through 1.5km of ice. "People have talked about melting through Enceladus's ice, and maybe that would work, but it's not easy". The paper adds that this suggests "that there is a subglacial lake at this location on Mars". "We can show that there's enough energy to drive chemotrophic life-life that doesn't need sun, but lives on chemistry", he said. "This is certainly not a very pleasant environment for life ..."

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