Scientists have discovered a large underground lake on Mars, 12 miles wide, trapped below an ice cap on the Red Planet’s southern pole.
For space science enthusiasts, this finding is a big deal, as scientists have long been searching for evidence of liquid water sloshing around on Mars. Not only that, but this lake is a tantalizing find for those curious about life beyond Earth. We already know that some forms of microbial life can thrive in Earth’s sub-glacial environments. According to researchers, the latest discovery on Mars raises the question as to whether the salty, sediment-heavy waters on Mars could also provide a suitable habitat for life — either now or in the past.
“This thrilling discovery is a highlight for planetary science and will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of Mars, the history of water on our neighbor planet and its habitability,” says Dmitri Titov, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express project scientist in a news release.
About a mile underneath layers of dust and ice, the ESA’s Mars Express used radar signals to discover the liquid lake. Scientists have long known that water was once present on Mars, because orbiting spacecraft captured clear images of dried-out river valleys and large outflow channels. Another hint? Minerals were found on the martian surface that could only form in the presence of liquid water.
But over the course of 4.6 billion years, the climate has changed on Mars, making it impossible for liquid water to exist on the planet’s dusty surface. Mars’ thin atmosphere has locked most of its water up in ice. So scientists began probing underground. They used the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument at the polar ice cap, because the melting point of water decreases under the pressure of glacier caps.
Now, scientists are interested in finding more underground pools of water.
“This is just one small study area; it is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered,” says Roberto Orosei, principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper published in the journal Science.
Fascinating indeed! And, while cliche, this could very well be just the tip of the iceberg.