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

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

A dose of salts: Mars is cold, so how come water under the ice cap isn't frozen? Further tests from several other instruments will tell us for sure in the near future. 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.

All of that water is either locked up in solid form, however, or locked away in the distant past. Until now, we knew that water exists in ice around the planet, as well as that there are signs of liquid water on the surface.

"We discovered water on Mars, " said Roberto Orosei, a scientist at Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics and the co-investigator on MARSIS, in a video about the discovery.

The announcement by Italian researchers that they had used radar to detect a 12-mile-wide lake under the surface of Mars has raised the tantalizing possibility that there's life on the Red Planet.

An artist's impression of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of the planet. The study area is highlighted using a THEMIS IR image mosaic. USGS Astrogeology Science Center, Arizona State University, ESA, INAF.

Between 2012 and 2015, the team obtained 29 radar samples and used them to map the subsurface almost one mile deep in the area and about a dozen miles wide. Such salts are known to exist in abundance in some Martian rocks, and are the most likely cause of the dewlike droplets and crater-wall rivulets previously observed on the planet's surface.

The discovery is especially intriguing because underground lakes like this are also found near Earth's poles, particularly in Greenland and Antarctica.

The water is likely to be below the freezing point for water (32°F or 0°C) given its location beneath the ice cap, but the presence of minerals such as magnesium, calcium and sodium perchlorate in the soil of the northern plains of Mars, "support the presence of liquid water at the base of the polar deposits".

Much like our own ice sheets, the polar ice caps change depending on the climate and act as archives for what has happened in the past. An underground lake was found near here.

For the past 12 years, a spacecraft-mounted radar called MARSIS has been sending radio waves down to Mars, which reflect back information about the make-up of the planet below.

Water is usually a sign of life, in fact, it's one of the principles of astrobiology. Well, the new data is essentially a radar analysis of this region of Mars. The radar cross section has been tilted 90°.

There is, and probably will continue to be, debate about the findings of this paper, simply because the implications of this discovery are huge.

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.

There is already speculation about the presence of these "extremophiles" in the salty subsurface oceans discovered inside some of the icy moons in our solar system.

The latest observations reveal something remarkable: a salty lake buried deep beneath the ice, which seems to be a permanent feature rather than a transient phenomenon. The ice on Mars would also shield the Martian lake from the damaging radiation that bombards the planet's surface. There had been some signs of liquid water now on Mars, including disputed evidence of water activity on Martian slopes, but not stable bodies of water. "We can show that there's enough energy to drive chemotrophic life-life that doesn't need sun, but lives on chemistry", he said.

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