A massive underground lake has been detected for the first time on Mars, raising the possibility that more water — and maybe even life — exists there, according to international astronomers.
Located under a layer of Martian ice, the lake is about 12 miles (20 kilometers) wide, said the report led by Italian researchers in the US journal Science.
It is the largest body of liquid water ever found on the Red Planet.
“Water is there. We have no more doubt,” co-author Enrico Flamini, the Italian space agency’s Mars Express mission manager, told a press conference.
Mars is now cold, barren and dry but used to be warm and wet. It was home to plenty of liquid water and lakes at least 3.6 billion years ago.
Scientists are eager to find signs of contemporary water, because such discoveries are key to unlocking the mystery of whether life ever formed on Mars in its ancient past, or if it might persist today.
“This is a stunning result that suggests water on Mars is not a temporary trickle like previous discoveries but a persistent body of water that provides the conditions for life for extended periods of time,” said Alan Duffy, an associate professor at Swinburne University in Australia, who was not involved in the study.
Being able to access water sources could also help humans survive on a future crewed mission to Earth’s neighboring planet.
This particular lake, however, would be neither swimmable nor drinkable, and lies almost a mile deep (1.5 kilometers) beneath the icy surface in a harsh and frigid environment.
Whether microbial forms of life could lie within is a matter of debate.
Some experts are skeptical of the possibility since the lake is so cold and briny, and mixed with a heavy dose of dissolved Martian salts and minerals.
The temperature is likely below the freezing point of pure water, but can remain liquid due to the presence of magnesium, calcium, and sodium.
“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.
“Caution needs to be exercised, however, as the concentration of salts needed to keep the water liquid could be fatal for any microbial life similar to Earth’s,” added Watson, who was not involved in the research.
– Radar detection –
The discovery was made using a radar instrument on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, which launched in 2003.
The tool is called the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), and was designed to find subsurface water by sending radar pulses that penetrate the surface and ice caps.
MARSIS “then measures how the radio waves propagate and reflect back to the spacecraft,” said the study.
These reflections “provide scientists with information about what lies beneath the surface.”
A team of researchers led by Roberto Orosei of the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Bologna, Italy, surveyed a region called Planum Australe, located in the southern ice cap of Mars, from May 2012 until December 2015.
A total of 29 sets of radar samplings showed a “very sharp change in its associated radar signal,” allowing scientists to map the outlines of the lake.
“The radar profile of this area is similar to that of lakes of liquid water found beneath the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets on Earth, suggesting that there is a subglacial lake at this location on Mars,” said the report.
Researchers said they are not sure how far down it goes, but may be around three feet (one meter) deep.
– Confirmation needed –
“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.
However, Stillman, who was not involved in the research, said another spacecraft, or other instruments, need to be able to confirm the discovery.
He noted that a higher-frequency radar instrument made by the Italian space agency, SHARAD, on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005, has been unable to detect subsurface water.
“It is strange that SHARAD cannot confirm this discovery. In fact, SHARAD cannot penetrate through the ice here and no one understands why it can’t,” Stillman said.
“This suggests that something strange is going on here. Thus, I’m skeptical about this discovery.”
But researchers are excited about the potential for future finds, because if liquid water could be found at Mars’ south pole, it might be elsewhere too.
“There’s nothing special about this location other than the MARSIS radar on the Mars Express spacecraft is most sensitive to that region meaning there are likely similar water deposits below the ground all across Mars,” said Duffy.
With this finding, the rush to colonize Mars may kick into high gear.
Elon Musk has successfully launched the world’s most powerful rocket, and reckons he can put humans on Mars by 2024 — but what would life be like on the red planet?
Renowned futurologist Ian Pearson, reckons Earth’s Martian colony will have its own accent, currency, and even a robot government.
He believes it’ll be around the year 2070 before there’s “a sensible-sized base” on Mars, with dozens of people.
He says the first Martians will have to be very rich, a need “good credentials” to colonise the planet.
“They will have a very special status. The first person born on Mars is going to be a celebrity for the rest of their life. It’ll be like Big Brother, we’ll be following every single development.”
But while these humans will start off like an elite space-race with high IQs and loads of cash, they’ll eventually “dilute over the generations” into normal everyday folk.
We’ll all start off on an international base — just like the International Space Station — apparently, but from there humans might spread out onto military bases.
“After that, I think once it starts getting commercialized and becomes militarily important, there will be bases springing up that belong to the Russian or Chinese or America military, or by then there might even be a European military,” says Pearson.
But even if all of that were to happen where would humanity first establish a foothold on the Red Planet?
Selecting the perfect landing site will be essential for the successful establishment of the first Mars colony.
Growing food crops will be one of the key tasks for the astronauts. Scientists of Wageningen University & Research have identified places on Mars that are favorable for plant species to grow. Even though plants will be grown indoors, resources as regolith and ice will be used. Wieger Wamelink and student Line Schug developed an optimal 3D Mars-wide landing map, seen from a plants perspective. Some of the ideal landing places coincide with past and planned future landing sites.
To estimate the optimal landing places on Mars the researchers used several of the Martian maps showing essential information that are made freely available by JPL, the Arizona State University and NASA. “Without them this endeavour would not have been possible,” explains Wieger Wamelink. The maps contain information about mineral content, which can for example be related to calcium and heavy metal content. But also element maps for potassium, chloride, iron and silicon and maps for radiation level, climate, terrain including altitude and cosmic radiation were used.
Not too many heavy metals
High levels of heavy metals in the soil and strong radiation make a location unsuitable for establishment, “explains Line Schug. High contents of heavy metals and high doses of radiation make a location unsuitable for colonisation, “explains Line Schug. “While we see high temperatures or calcium levels and a relatively flat terrain as positive.”
3D maps of Mars
The maps were merged and the average score was calculated, with high scores marking the best landing sites from a plant’s perspective. In the past the Mars Pathfinder and Viking 1 landed at hotspots to establish a colony, however, MSL Curiosity and Viking 2 landed on less favourable spots.
Research on food for Mars and Moon
To feed the future humans living on Mars or the moon the Wageningen research project ‘Food for Mars and Moon’ aims to set up a sustainable agricultural system.
It is based on the presence of soils and water (in the form of ice) on both Mars and the moon. For this Earth-based research, the researchers are using soil simulants delivered by NASA. The simulants originate from a volcano in Hawaii (Mars) and a desert in Arizona (moon). The experiments started in 2013. (CONTINUE READING HERE)
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
July 25th, 2018