Scientists detect giant underground aquifer on Mars, raising hope of life on the planet

Mars’ south pole, as seen from Mars Express
Image: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Mars hosts a huge underground aquifer of liquid water, according to a group of scientists who say they have found convincing evidence. The underground lake hasn’t been seen directly, but if it’s real, it’s a discovery that substantially increases the likelihood that the Red Planet might host life.

Researchers detected the possible reservoir with the Mars Express Orbiter, a European spacecraft that’s been orbiting Mars since 2003. While scanning the ice cap at Mars’ south pole, the probe’s radar instrument, called MARSIS, detected a feature about a mile underneath the surface that was about 12.4 miles wide. The structure has a radar signature that matches that of buried liquid water here on Earth, leading the team to conclude that there’s a lake under the glacier. The researchers say they’ve ruled out all other possibilities for what they’re seeing.

“I’ve run out of ideas on how to explain this in a way that isn’t water,” Roberto Orosei, a researcher at Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics and lead of the team that found the formation, tells The Verge. “We’ve tried to exhaust every possible alternative, and we think we’ve done it.”

For decades now, planetary scientists have tried to find liquid water on Mars; most agree that it likely exists in certain regions. This finding, detailed today in Science, is the first indication that water may exist in pools underneath the Martian surface. That has big implications for the search for alien life on our planetary neighbor: bacteria have been found here on Earth in water under glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland. “Pretty much anywhere there is liquid water on Earth, you find something that’s managed to survive in it,” Tanya Harrison, a planetary scientist and director of research for Arizona State University’s Space Technology and Science Initiative who was not involved with this discovery, tells The Verge. An underground reservoir may be the perfect place for Mars microbes to survive as well.

However, the idea of liquid water under the surface of Mars is sure to be hotly debated. Today’s finding is only based on radar measurements, which means it’ll be difficult to confirm unless we send more sophisticated instruments to Mars in the future or if we actually drill into the ice. But if there is a lake under Mars’ south pole, that may mean there are even more aquifers we just haven’t detected yet. “This would be the first pocket of water [on Mars], and it begs the question: is that true and are there more of them?” Jim Green, NASA’s chief scientist, tells The Verge.

Dark streaks on Mars’ Garni Crater known as recurring slope lineae. NASA and other scientists believe these are created by flowing salty water.
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona

NASA is already fairly certain that some water flows on the Red Planet’s surface. In 2015, the space agency announced that a bunch of bizarre dark streaks seen on Mars were likely made up of salty water. That was the first big confirmation that water exists as a liquid on Mars, which is remarkable when you consider that the planet has an average temperature of -80 degrees Fahrenheit. Salt in the water lowers its freezing point, allowing it to stay liquid in frigid conditions; scientists believe the salt probably comes from Martian rocks.

Some scientists have had their doubts about those streaks, too. One team has suggested the streaks are just dark grains of sand rolling downhill. But even if those flows are truly liquid water, they’re not quite habitable. They’re fairly small and thin, and they only appear during the warmer times of the year when it’s possible for the water to exist as a liquid. That means the winter wouldn’t be very hospitable. “On any place on the surface of Mars, even where water appears periodically, a terrestrial living organism would die,” says Orosei. “There would not be conditions for their sustained survival.”

That’s what makes this unseen aquifer so exciting: it’s potentially big and stable. It’s far enough underground that it isn’t affected by seasonal changes in the planet’s surface temperature, according to Orosei. It probably contains lots of salts, such as magnesium, calcium, and sodium. And the team thinks that the polar ice on top of the water is creating a lot of intense pressure, which also makes it easier for the reservoir to stay in a liquid state. Increased pressure prevents water from freezing at lower temperatures. So it’s possible this aquifer stays a liquid all year round, which is good news for habitability “It constitutes the closest thing to a habitat we’ve found on Mars,” says Orosei. “It’s the only known place on Mars where a terrestrial microorganism, at least the tough ones, could possibly survive. Though we don’t know for sure.”

An artistic rendering of ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft.
Image by D. Ducros / ESA

Orosei and his team collected data from the south pole from May 2012 through December 2015 and then spent an additional two years ruling out all of the possible alternatives for what the MARSIS instrument had measured. It’s likely that other scientists may try to find additional explanations. “The interpretation of it as water, I think a lot of people in the community are going to want to see more beyond just the radar,” Cassie Stuurman, a research and development intern at satellite imaging company Planet, who discovered a huge ice deposit under Mars in 2016, tells The Verge. “The results are consistent with water, but I’d like to see more evidence before we say anything conclusive.”

The radar measurements don’t give any good indications of thickness, so we don’t know how deep this lake goes. It could be a deep body of water, or it could be a type of sludge that’s mixed with lots of small rocks. “We shouldn’t have a picture in our head of a lake because we don’t know,” Anja Diez, a geologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute, tells The Verge. “We only know where this water is, but we don’t know anything about the depth really.”

Fortunately, we may get some more answers about this area soon. In May, NASA launched a new lander to Mars called InSight, which is designed to probe the interior of the Red Planet and figure out its internal temperature. NASA’s Green says InSight’s heat probe could tell us how much heat is escaping the planet, and whether or not liquid water is even sustainable underneath the South Pole. “That instrument might be able to help us understand that the heat is adequate to keep this water liquid and not frozen,” says Green.

InSight isn’t quite enough to truly confirm the existence of the lake — if it is a lake. NASA would need to send a robot of some kind to drill into the ice or send a more powerful type of radar to Mars with more sensitivity than the MARSIS instrument. There are no current plans to send a tool like that on any future Martian spacecraft. But Green says this discovery may lead to conversations about what kind of tool might make sense to send. “There has quite a bit of discussion by NASA and other agencies for doing that,” he says. “This now will have some urgency associated with it.”

A more powerful radar may also be able to tease out other potential aquifers under the Mars surface — if they’re there. The south pole reservoir had to be fairly large for MARSIS to pick it up, but a more sensitive instrument could detect even smaller pockets. Finding more of these hidden lakes, especially at lower, warmer altitudes, could greatly influence how we send humans to Mars one day. If there is indeed an aquifer underneath a good landing site, NASA may try to land humans there to drill into the ground and look for microbes.

“That could illuminate a network of underground aquifers that would hopefully be more convenient and then aid us in deciding where humans would land,” says Green. “Because [water’s] an important resource we’ve got to have.”

Comments

{ Insert David Bowie Song Here }

Dance Magic Dance is an absolute jam in fairness

Send in Douglas Quaid to activate the turbinium reactor.

"Open your miiiiiiind"

"Two weeks."

"Get your @$$ to Mars."

Now this going to give Elon a big kick to get BFR build fast!. In fact, he ought to start a "Scientific BFR" fund with international investors for a couple of BFS to be used for international research. If Elon is going to count of commercial Mars mission to fund BFR, then it would take about 20 years……the world would want to see 4-5 ships within 10 years. Maybe 2 or 3 used for Mars missions, the rest for other things like MOON missions and Ceres missions…..or asteriod hurling!.

Can’t wait for Nasa’s fish cam!

There is no life there. Life on earth was a miniscule chance. Wishful thinking by insecure humans on earth.

That’s not how science works.

We are ALL miniscule chances on This Day

Is that a Ken M quote?

We are ALL KenM on This Day

We have been getting hints at potential present or past life for years now, but I don’t see any mission on the horizon to actually seek that said life.

One would need to drill down the ice, grab a sample, and then examine it under a microscope to be certain… which may end up being too complicated for our technology today and can probably only be done by a human expedition.

If Nasa stays on schedule, that might happen sometime in the mid-2030’s?
I somehow doubt it will stay on schedule seeing how many delays their SLS project is taking and their unwillingness to risk thousands of jobs by taking the easier route with SpaceX’s BFR.

First of all, baby steps. You have to know where to look first. Mars, even smaller than Earth as it is, is still a big place if you’re not sure where to go. Imagine if you were a Venutian and someone said there might be life somewhere on Earth in Africa, the Middle East, Asia or Europe, but it could be anywhere on those land masses, or nowhere. Oh, you do have some pictures from space to help you out, but that’s it. Where would you look?

Well, without any further research, you might end up looking in the Sahara because that’s the area that looks superficially most like your own planet. And you might find sandworms there or something, but you also might not, because you don’t know what sandworms are, what signs they leave behind, how far they burrow down, etc. And from that, you might conclude that there is no life on Earth.

Mars missions so far have been mostly about figuring out where life is most likely to be so that we can explore those areas further. A big part of it has been a search for liquid water, which this experiment seems to now have found.

Once you figure out where to actually look, then you design missions around the unique traits of those areas.

Also, missions to the Martian surface are both expensive and difficult. A lot can be gleaned other ways, as this experiment shows. A surface mission really needs to be well justified, and we’ve already sent rovers to go rolling around taking pictures. Another surface mission is probably going to need to be looking for life in a specific area. But we had to know where to send it and how it should act first.

Thanks Loren – I always like a little Space in my news diet.

The extraordinary thing would be no water underground on modern Mars. The question for decades has been : "how deep ?". A few studies have already shown past volcanism , tens of millions of years ago indicating a warm core still today. It’s clear from its heritage (closer to the Ice limit) that Mars had a big amount of water at its birth. On Earth there’s more water underground than in ours oceans, on a planet much more active and with tectonic activity, so…
If I recall correctly MARSIS is less accurate than SHARAD (on M.R.O) but can see deeper. The fact that SHARAD doesn’t see anything is not an indication that these results are wrong. Mars must have water tables in multiple locations, possibly deeper than what MARSIS can detect. The real astonishment is why it took so long to detect one…
If we are ever to detect present life on Mars it will be (after Earth’s microbial life) in underground aquifer. So yes, there’s hope.

Since when FINDING LIFE is good thing? Finding life on Mars would be a disaster. Because if we have life so close, why we can’t detect life anywhere else? And that’s leed to answear, that every civilization is doomed and gets destroyed by something or themself, and that’s why it would be terrible to find bactery life on Mars, and ancient ruins of alien civilization – would mean, that we humanity is dead man walking…

Whatever you’re smoking, I want some.

It’s not the weed that has the effect, it’s the great filter.

Or other life forms are more advanced and smart enough to avoid us. We may not even have the technology to detect the signals they send anyway and we’ve barely sent probes anywhere. We know next to nothing about what life is out there in the universe. Could be a whole Star Trek type situation. Remember, they are not allowed to interfere with lower life forms by revealing their tech or anything of the sort.

do we actually have satellites observing the planet already besides those still living rovers?

Did not reead the article Or even look at some of the real pictures.

Researchers detected the possible reservoir with the Mars Express Orbiter, a European spacecraft that’s been orbiting Mars since 2003. While scanning the ice cap at Mars’ south pole, the probe’s radar instrument, called MARSIS, detected a feature about a mile underneath the surface that was about 12.4 miles wide. The structure has a radar signature that matches that of buried liquid water here on Earth, leading the team to conclude that there’s a lake under the glacier. The researchers say they’ve ruled out all other possibilities for what they’re seeing.

Mars is the preview of Earth. If we keep screwing the Earth, we will end up like Mars.

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