Underground lake found on Mars by Italian researchers

"It's an exciting discovery, if it's true", said Tanya Harrison, Professional Martian and Director of Research for Arizona State University's Space Technology and Science Initiative, who was not involved in this discovery, "since we know that life can survive in subglacial lakes, and brine pockets inside glaciers, here on Earth".

The Red Planet was likely once rich in liquid water much like Earth, but has since become arid and desolate.

Between May 2012 and December 2015, the Mars Express spacecraft was used to conduct a radar survey of a region called Planum Australe, located in the southern ice cap of Mars.

A few years ago, biologists found more than 3,500 unique gene sequences in Lake Vostok which had been isolated for more than 15 million years; Lake Vostok gets no sunlight with it being 4,000 metres below the ice and has a recorded temperature of -89.2c, showing life to be hardy. Planetary scientists have been embarked on a quest to find liquid water on the red planet, because life as we know it can not survive without water to act as a solvent in its biochemistry.

Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in an email that the interpretation that it is liquid water is "certainly plausible, but it's not quite a slam dunk yet".

"I predict future spacecraft mission to Mars and engineers are going to be working very hard to design methods to sample this remote water source from this newly discovered subterranean Martian lake".

This, however, is the best evidence to date of an environment on Mars that could be friendly to known forms of life - these "extremophile" bacteria - right now.

Orosei said the lake's water was below freezing point but remained liquid thanks to a sizeable amount of salt. Image credit: NASA/ESA/J. Bell (Cornell University)/M. Wolff (SSI).

Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS operations manager and a co-author of the paper, said the researchers have seen hints of interesting subsurface features suggestive of water for years but "couldn't reproduce the result from orbit to orbit".

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Despite the obvious excitement surrounding the findings, Mars' surface is "inhospitable to life", according to the Open University's Dr. Manish Patel, and researchers are not any closer to finding life than they were prior to the announcement.

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

The detection was made using the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument on European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft.

A team of scientists announced today that they had found a large body of liquid water beneath the southern ice caps of Mars.

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".

From left, Italian astrophysicists Roberto Orosei, Elena Pettinelli and Enrico Flamini poses for photographers with a replica of Cosmo-SkyMed radar satellites, at the Italian Space Agency headquarters prior to a press conference in Rome, Wednesday, July 25, 2018.

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. Subsurface echo power is color coded and deep blue corresponds to the strongest reflections, which are interpreted as being caused by the presence of water.

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