Found: Liquid Water on Mars

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The find could end a more than century-long debate over whether or not the Red Planet still has liquid water. Now, scientists have found evidence of a lake of liquid water under the planet's south polar ice cap. The discovery, which was made possible by a ground-penetrating radar on the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft, is "thrilling and exciting", he said.

The temperature of the water in the 12-mile-wide lake is believed to be minus-90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The body of water is about 20 kilometres across and, if confirmed, would be the first evidence of permanent water on the Red Planet.

For the past 12 years, a spacecraft-mounted radar called MARSIS has been sending radio waves down to Mars, which reflect back information about the make-up of the planet below.

The presence of liquid water on Mars has always been suspected but thus far evidence from MARSIS remained inconclusive.

There is already speculation about the presence of these "extremophiles" in the salty subsurface oceans discovered inside some of the icy moons in our solar system.

A report on the discovery of the underground lake appears in the journal, Science. But there hasn't been evidence of stable bodies of water until now, the researchers said. In Earth's polar regions, the pressure of the overlying ice lowers its melting point, and geothermal heat warms it from below to create the subglacial lakes. The Mars water would have to have a similar make-up to actually be liquid. Data from NASA's Cassini orbiter, even though the mission ended in 2017, continues to provide researchers with evidence of organics under the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus, although they can't yet tell if geology or biology produced those organics (Cassini simply wasn't equipped to tell the difference).

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But if water is still there, it would mean it has likely been constant throughout Mars' 4.6 billion year history - making the possibility of life much more likely.

"Nobody dares to propose that there could be any more complex life form", Orosei said.

"This is just one small study area", says study author Roberto Orosei, who's also principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment. The readings turned up a bright radar reflection indicative of liquid water, shown as blue on the map at right.

The lake resembles one of the interconnected pools that sit under several kilometers of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, says Martin Siegert, a geophysicist at Imperial College London, who heads a consortium trying to drill into Lake Ellsworth under West Antarctica. But some experts are cautioning that this discovery alone does not ensure the eventual discovery of life on Mars.

However, while the find is tantalizing for astrobiologists eager to find alien life, it's also a bit of a tease.

"We do not know the exact temperature, salinity, etc. of this body of water, but it is tempting to think that [it] may be similar to terrestrial environments in which life is able to thrive".

The reason for the reflections at these boundaries has to do with the electrical properties of the materials, and according to Stuurman, liquid water has radically different electrical properties than rock or ice. "This is very big news for astrobiology on Mars", said NASA's McKay.

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