Science

Three more ancient underground lakes of liquid discovered on Mars, increasing probability of life

PHOTO CREDITS: THE SCIENTIST

Two years ago, a large lake beneath a thick layer of ice at Mars’ south pole was found by astronomers. Since then, three more underground lakes have been detected in the same area – with a possibility of more lakes being found in the future. 

This week, a new study has been published in the Nature Astronomy journal, confirming the 2018 discovery and extending the fact that three more lakes, which could be supporting life on Mars, have been found. Researchers from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft used radar data to study a set of one hundred and thirty-four observations between 2012-2019.

Those radar instruments on the Mars Express sent radio waves to the Mars’ surface, which reflected back in different ways depending upon the material present there. This same method is used to find subglacial lakes on Earth. A team of researchers detected high reflectivity which suggests the presence of large bodies of liquid water trapped beneath the surface. “The possibility of extended hypersaline water bodies on Mars is particularly exciting because of the potential for the existence of microbial life,” the team said (Observer). “Future missions to Mars should target this region to acquire experimental data in relation to the basal hydrologic system, it’s chemistry, and traces of astrobiological activity” (CBS). 

The largest lake found was measured to have a surface area of 1.1 million square kilometers and it’s surrounded by smaller ponds. Researchers believe that the water there is salty, allowing it to stay in liquid form even in Mars’ frigid temperatures. Another reason for water to be liquid is the geothermal activities of the mantle inside Mars’ crust. “There’s not much active life in these briny pools in Antarctica,” John Priscu, an environmental scientist at Montana State University in Bozeman, told Nature. The findings show the possibility of a much larger network of ancient underground lakes which could be many years old when Mars was warmer, wetter, and sustainable like Earth.

Water cannot currently remain stable on Mars’ surface due to its lack of atmosphere and weakened magnetic field, by which Solar Protons or Solar Particles could enter into the atmosphere during Coronal Mass Ejection shocks from the Sun affecting water and life on Mars due to radiation. But as the researchers exclaimed, water and life could be existing beneath the surface of Mars. “There may have been a lot of water on Mars,” said study co-author Elena Pettinelli, a planetary scientist at the University of Rome, “And if there was water, there was the possibility of life” (CBS). 

However, not everyone is convinced by the data. Mike Sori, a planetary geologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, told Nature: “If the bright material really is liquid water, I think it’s more likely to represent some sort of slush or sludge.”

ARTICLE: PATEL CHAITANYA

EDITOR: KYLE SMITH, SCIENCE EDITOR

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