Huge lake of salty water found buried deep in Mars

New findings from Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

It's not clear where the water the Italian team found is coming from, and it's not certain there are any other underground lakes to be found.

"This is the first body of water it has detected, so it is very exciting", David Stillman, a senior research scientist in the Department of Space Studies at Southwest Research Institute in Texas, told AFP in an email.

This principle of following the water is key to astrobiology - the study of potential life beyond Earth.

The "stunning" find, which was announced today, at last confirms a long-standing theory about submerged water on the planet, in what scientists said was a discovery of "extraordinary significance".

Because water could not be detected on the surface, scientists began to explore underground evidence of water. "This subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments", said Roberto Orosei, the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding [MARSIS] experiment's principal investigator and lead author of a new Science-published paper on the topic. It has to be at least about three feet deep, or else it would not have been picked up by the radar scan, Orosei said.

Evidence was gathered a radar on the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft.

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We discovered water on Mars.

NASA is planning to launch a new rover as early as July 2020 with a mission to comprehensively determine whether life ever arose on Mars, while characterising the climate and geology of the red planet and preparing for human exploration. A subsurface radar profile is shown in the right hand panel for one of the Mars orbits. In 1987, the astronomer Stephen M. Clifford theorized that liquid water might be hiding, deep below the planet's polar ice caps.

Orosei said the water in the Martian lake was below the normal freezing point but remained liquid thanks in large part to high levels of salts. The nature of reflections off the subterranean features offer scientists information about exactly what lies beneath the surface and the data says there is liquid water.

Geophysicist Cassie Stuurman, who was not involved in this particular discovery, but who did discover a Lake Superior-sized glacier under Mars' surface, explained that the way ground penetrating radar works is by sending out radio waves, and then measuring the return waves that are reflected off the surface, and off boundaries between different materials under the surface.

Liquid water is an essential requirement for life as we understand it. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.

If others are detected and a network of subglacial lakes exists like on Earth, he said, that could indicate liquid water has persisted for millions of years or even dating back to 3-1/2 billion years ago when Mars was a more hospitable planet.

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