Between May 2012 and December 2015, the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (or "MARSIS" for short) surveyed the region of Mars known as the Planum Australe, a 200-kilometer area on the planet's southern polar plain, which is composed of water ice, Carbon dioxide ice, and admixed dust. As reported in Science, the researchers, led by Roberto Orosei from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, examined radar profiles collected between May 2012 and December 2015 and discovered the evidence of liquid water trapped below the ice.
The paper, authored by the Italian MARSIS team, outlines how a "bright spot" was detected in radar signals about 1 mile (about 1.5 kilometers) below the surface of the ice cap in the Planum Australe region.
In order to remain liquid in such cold conditions (the research team estimate between -10°C and -30° where it meets the ice above), the water likely has a great many salts dissolved in it. On top of that, the presence of salts on Mars made it ideal to keep any water liquid, even at freezing temperatures.
The presence of liquid water at the base of the polar ice caps has always been suspected; after all, from studies on Earth, it is well known that the melting point of water decreases under the pressure of an overlying glacier. "You can find bacteria in what is seen in Antarctica, so there may be a good possibility that what we found on Mars is a good environment for the preservation of microbial life", Pettinelli says.
Being able to access water sources could help humans survive on a future crewed mission to Earth's neighbouring planet. It's over 12 miles wide and is the first of its kind to be discovered on Mars, which had previously been thought to only contain ice.
Mars’s southern polar ice cap
Billions of years ago, Mars was a much more Earth-like place where water pooled in seas, carved enormous canyons and bubbled from hot springs.
Mars was once a wet planet; it had rivers and lakes, like Earth.
On board the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express Orbiter, the MARSIS is a radar instrument that inspects the surface of Mars and its immediate subsurface as well. It "then measures how the radio waves propagate and reflect back to the spacecraft".
Experts can determine things about the sub-surface features reflecting these radar pulses, gaining an element of insight into the Red Planet's hidden layers. These penetrate its surface but bounce back when they hit a boundary between different materials, such as ice and bedrock.
This is the first sign of a persistent water body on the Red Planet. It will be decades before astronauts can visit the surface of Mars, and likely much longer before we can drill a mile beneath the dusty surface. Over millions of years, Mars cooled and its water became locked in permafrost. "I see cells in it, but it's so briny that the cells-I can't get them to metabolize, " he said, referring to the chemical processes that all organisms undertake to survive. "Because of this, there is no reason to conclude that the presence of subsurface water on Mars is limited to a single location".
One of those instruments will be on Mars later this year. The latest findings reported by researchers at the Italian Space Agency suggest that a 20 kilometer-wide subglacial lake lies just 1.6 kilometers beneath the surface, near the south pole of Mars. Now, if this discovery pans out, it's clear that some large pockets of liquid water still exist on or near the Martian surface.
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