Life on Mars? Liquid water lake found on the Red Planet

Muriel Hammond
July 28, 2018

"What we tend to think here on Earth is that if there is liquid water, there is a good chance for life".

The findings, which are published in the journal Science, were made possibly by Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), an instrument that resides on the Mars Express spacecraft. Unless, that is, one could somehow peer deep beneath its frigid surface to the base of the ice cap some 1.5 kilometers below, where a lake of liquid water almost three times larger than the island of Manhattan may lurk. But Mars is colder, so finding evidence of liquid water there is always exciting, and it's not easy to detect water beneath the surface of another planet. Nasa has long espoused a philosophy of "follow the water" in its programme of astrobiological research - trying to answer the question: "Are we alone?"

Unfortunately, though, it'll probably be at least a decade before we can investigate further.

Mars Express launched 2 June 2003 and celebrates 15 years in orbit on 25 December this year.

"There are all the ingredients for thinking that life can be there", Enrico Flamini, project manager for the MARSIS radar instrument on Mars Express, said today during a Rome news conference to discuss the results. 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.

"However, caution should be exercised, since the concentration of salts needed to maintain the liquid water could be fatal to any microbial life similar to that on Earth", added Watson, who was not involved in the research.

Compared to today's discovery, those earlier findings are a drop in the ocean. Data from NASA's Cassini orbiter, even though the mission ended in 2017, continues to provide researchers with evidence of organics under the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus, although they can't yet tell if geology or biology produced those organics (Cassini simply wasn't equipped to tell the difference).

The comparison that springs to mind are the myriad lakes buried under the ice of Antarctica.

"Even with those limitations, we've now found that there is likely to be liquid water in the Martian subsurface", Stamenkovic said. However, no one is getting carried away right now. But the one to which I want to draw your attention is named Lake Whillans. In 2013, a team of researchers succeeded in drilling down into the lake and recovering samples. Oh, you can't. It's been forced into a drastic hibernation by deadly dust storms so intense they've engulfed the entire planet.

The European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft used radar to detect a lake of liquid water on the Red Planet
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft used radar to detect a lake of liquid water on the Red Planet

"This is now our best, albeit slim chance of discovering life elsewhere in our Solar System until the more complex missions to Europa or Enceladus, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn we also believe have subterranean water sources". Where there's water, there's life.

Although the conditions in the lake may be too harsh for anything to survive, the fact it exists points to other potential liquid water on the Red Planet which may be warmer and less salty. Could there be life there, beneath the ice? But it seems like the ideal place to look.

Still, she said, there are microbes on Earth that have been able to adapt to environments like that. This is where things get speculative. Perhaps the life originated there, or maybe it was delivered from Earth, hitching a ride on a meteorite.

And although Antarctica is hard to get to, it's a lot easier than Mars. Over millions of years, Mars cooled and its water became locked in permafrost.

"This is a discovery of extraordinary significance, and is bound to heighten speculation about the presence of living organisms on the Red Planet", said Fred Watson of the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

"The salts - which are likely similar to those found by Nasa's Phoenix spacecraft in the ice of the northern polar area (of Mars) - work like "anti-freeze", helping maintain the water in a liquid state", the Italian Space Agency (ASI) said in the statement.

"This is an unbelievable result that suggests that water on Mars is not a temporary stream, as revealed in previous discoveries, but a body of persistent water that creates the conditions for life over long periods of time", said Alan Duffy, Associate Professor at the University of Swinburne in Australia, who did not participate in the study.

In addition, landing in Mars's southern hemisphere is harder still. "Additionally, landing on the south pole of Mars would be extremely challenging given the high elevation there, which means there isn't a sufficient amount of atmosphere to help slow down a lander upon entry, descent and landing".

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