The moment we think we understand ourselves and our surroundings we are shocked to learn that not everything is as it first appears. Our nearest neighbor and source of so much human interest outside our own planet, continues to surprise us. We’ve sent rovers, probes and satellites to survey the Red Planet and scratch at its surface, looking for signs of life and clues into our own past.
A new research paper released by the Italian MARSIS team claims to have detected the presence of liquid water under an ice cap of Mars. MARSIS is the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument that sits aboard the European Mars Express spacecraft. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) was the primary organization that developed the MARSIS instrument with the assistance of NASA.
Using radio echo sounding (RES), a technique that successfully detected water beneath our own ice caps, the team found an area of 20 kilometers that exhibits the reflectance characteristics of water. The sub-glacial lake rests 1.5 kilometers under the ice on Mars’ South Pole. The temperature in this region is estimated to be at least minus 10 degrees Celsius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit but could be much colder. Water would normally freeze at this temperature, but the presence of magnesium, calcium and sodium could turn the water into a briny mixture that keeps it in a liquid state.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In 2015, NASA reported the finding of liquid, seasonal flows on Mars with a briny consistency. Since then, they have back peddled on the report of these seasonal, dark streaks containing a significant amount of water. NASA’s response to the ASI paper has been equally as cautious and suspicious of the potential of finding water on such a dry planet. Their public release was brief, merely acknowledging the report and its contents with a statement on their own future efforts to probe the Martian surface for evidence of water.
While NASA appears tight-lipped and unenthusiastic at another team’s findings, everyone else is excited about the prospect of sub-glacial lakes and the potential for them to harbor microbial life. It will be many years before more data can be collected and rovers with drilling capabilities make it to Mars. Until then we’ll have to let our imaginations run away with us. Alternatively, we could sulk about not finding it ourselves before anyone else…