Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Rome, Italy (4E) – In a historic discovery, Italian scientists have detected the presence of a stable, subterranean body of salty or briny water on Mars. It’s the first time liquid water in large, stable quantities been found above or below ground on the Red Planet.
The Italian Space Agency said its researchers detected signs of a large, stable body of liquid water located beneath a mile of ice near an area of Mars’ South Pole called Planum Australe. The observations of this lake were recorded by the “Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument,” or MARSIS, aboard the orbiting Mars Express spacecraft of the European Space Agency.
“MARSIS was born to make this kind of discovery, and now it has,” said Roberto Orosei, a radioastronomer at the National Institute for Astrophysics, in Rome who led the investigation. His team’s findings, which were published in the peer-reviewed journal, Science, raise exciting questions about the Mars’ geology, and its potential for harboring primitive life forms.
Orosei and his team think liquid water still exists on Mars despite temperatures tens of degrees below 0° Celsius might be due to the presence of magnesium, calcium, and sodium salts. All of these elements are present in Martian rock. When dissolved in the water, these elements lower water’s freezing point causing water to remain a liquid, albeit a very briny liquid.
MARSIS is hardly above Planum Australe, the focus of the Italian team’s investigation. This meant researchers could only scan the surface periodically. It took many readings and many years to get a clear picture of what lies hidden beneath Mars’ southern ice cap. Researchers began their survey in May 2012.
After 3-1/2 years and 29 observations, researchers pieced together a radiogrammatic map of Mars’ southern polar plane. They were struck by an amazing oddity after cross-referencing all their measurements.
They saw bright reflections in the radar signals corresponding to what Orosei now calls “a well-defined anomaly” some 12 miles across and several feet deep, a mile beneath the surface of the polar ice cap.
Scientists know the surface of an ice cap tends to reflect radar waves more strongly than regions below it. MARSIS had detected uncommonly strong echoes originating from beneath the South Pole on multiple passes.
Analyses of subglacial lakes on the Earth such as those beneath the Antarctic have shown that water reflects radar more strongly than rock and sediment. The conclusion was the radar profile of this region of Mars’ southern pole resembles those of subglacial lakes on Earth.
“I can’t absolutely prove it’s water, but I sure can’t think of anything else that looks like this thing does other than liquid water,” says Richard Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was didn’t take part in the study.
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