Underground saltwater lakes discovered on Mars

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And it is not inconceivable that Martian life can be found in these lakes.

In 2018, researchers came up with a promising discovery. Under the ice sheet at the Martian South Pole, there may be a huge underground lake. The discovery was followed by several attempts to confirm the find. And that has led to a new wonderful conclusion. Because researchers now say they have found hard evidence for several underground saltwater lakes on the red planet.

Previous study
Researchers tracked down the underground lake in 2018 using a radar system on board the Mars Express. The measurements suggested that the water reservoir is about 20 kilometers wide and up to 1.5 kilometers deep. Still, the team kept a blow to the arm. “The biggest unanswered question from our earlier article was, is this the only evidence for the existence of liquid water beneath the ice at the south pole of Mars?” says researcher Enrico Flamini. “At the time, we didn’t have enough evidence to answer this question. But our new study shows that the discovery at the time was only the first evidence of a grand system of liquid water reservoirs beneath the Martian surface. ”

Discovery
In the new study, published in Nature Astronomy, the researchers again looked at radar data collected by MARSIS. This is a scientific instrument on board the Mars Express spacecraft. Next, the researchers followed a methodology commonly used in radar surveys of subglacial lakes in Antarctica, Canada and Greenland. And it shows that there are large pools of liquid water hidden under the Martian surface. “Not only did we confirm the position, scope and reflection from our 2018 study, we also found three new bright areas,” says researcher Elena Pettinelli. A wonderful discovery. “To say these results make me happy is an understatement,” says Flamini. “It’s exactly what I hoped for. It’s a really great find! ”

System
It means there may well be an underground system of saltwater lakes on Mars. “The main lake is surrounded by smaller amounts of liquid water,” explains Pettinelli. “However, due to the technical characteristics of the radar and the distance to the surface of Mars, we cannot conclusively determine whether they are all connected.” In any case, the discovery is special. “While the existence of a single subglacial lake can be attributed to exceptional circumstances (such as the presence of a volcano under the ice sheet), the discovery of an entire system of lakes implies that their formation process is relatively simple and common,” concludes researcher Roberto Orosei. “These lakes have probably been around for a long time.”

Salt water
The question is, of course, how it is possible that liquid water occurs on a planet where temperatures can be far below freezing point. The fact that the water still remains liquid is probably due to salt – from Martian rock – that is dissolved in the water. The enormous pressure that the ice sheet exerts on the underground water reservoir would also contribute. “Laboratory experiments have shown that brine can persist for a long time, even at extremely low temperatures normal for the polar regions of Mars,” said researcher Graziella Caprarelli. We therefore believe that any process that leads to the formation and existence of liquid water underneath the ice at the poles requires a liquid with a high salt content. ”

Life?
A logical next question is whether these lakes may also harbor traces of life. As the lakes have probably been around for some time, expectations are high. “For this reason, the lakes may still contain traces of life forms,” says Orosei. “These life forms may have evolved when Mars had a dense atmosphere, mild climate, and liquid water on the surface (comparable to early Earth). In addition, brine is known to have the ability to sustain microbial life in extreme conditions.

More about life in the underground Martian waters
The search for life on the red planet has been going on for some time. However, we must not forget that the surface of Mars is a very inhospitable place. With an average temperature of -60 degrees Celsius and an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, liquid water is unlikely to be found at the surface. And since life – as we know it – needs water, it is very unlikely that life on the surface can survive. However, the new discovery reveals that liquid water may exist beneath the ice at Mars’ south pole. And so there is a very fascinating possibility that microbial life can survive and thrive in subglacial Martian waters. Life is of course not easy in those deep under the ice, but research on earth has shown that some tough life forms still manage to survive there. Why would that be any different on Mars? However, we should not cheer too soon. The concentration of salt needed to keep the water (under the Martian ice sheet) liquid, could be fatal for all microbial life that resembles what we find earth.

With the study, the research team confirms that thick ice sheets are far from uniform landscapes. Moreover, they appear to have a lot of surprises in store. The ice sheets should therefore be viewed as physically complex geological formations that deserve to be explored in detail. Research into the polar regions on Mars is therefore continuing. The intention is to uncover more underground lakes. The researchers also want to find out the composition of these underground waters and determine whether they still harbor traces of life.

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