"It's a very exciting result: the first indication of a briny aquifer on Mars", said geophysicist David Stillman of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Through their three-and-a-half-year effort and 29 passes over the targeted area, they discovered a 20-kilometer-wide lake located 1.5 kilometers below the surface. It was already there or thereabouts - Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus have both been shown to have large bodies of water, and another Saturnian moon, Titan, is known to have standing bodies of liquid methane, but Mars was always a likely candidate, because of the evidence that large bodies existed in the past. But water on Mars is water on Mars-pretty darn cool.
"It's those salts that keep the water from freezing, familiar to anyone who can drive on ice-free roads in winter after the salt gritters have been at work", he says. Orosei estimated the water temperature at somewhere between 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius) and minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius). MARSIS is a special kind of radar called ground penetrating radar.
The principle is the same above Mars. The signals did match radar measurements of under-ice lakes in Greenland and Antarctica.
But until now evidence from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument, MARSIS, the first radar sounder ever to orbit another planet, remained inconclusive.
Artistic impression of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars, superimposed to a color mosaic of a portion of Planum Australe.
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This discovery of a salty subsurface lake, on an object much closer to the Sun, and much larger than a moon, is even bigger news. MARSIS then measures these reflected waves to figure out what it's looking at.
So the researchers did a rough calibration by registering the signal that bounced back when the radar hit the atmosphere/dusty ice boundary at the Martian surface, since the composition of these materials is pretty well understood.
Italian scientists working on the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission announced today that a 12-mile wide underground liquid pool - not just the momentary damp spots seen in the past - had been detected by radar measurements near the Martian south pole.
Depending on where and how you look, you can find plenty of water on Mars.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation indicated several hundred million cubic metres of water, equivalent to tens of billions of litres.
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The water would be a brine mixed with perchlorate salts. The ice caps above the lake likewise increase pressure, impacting the melt point and potentially helping pave the way for a subglacial liquid water lake.
However, no such conclusions are technically conclusive until a probe drills through the Martian soil and rock and actually takes a sip.
"We found, in fact, that any other explanation for the very strong [radar] echoes were not very tenable in light of the evidence that we had available". That doesn't mean there aren't interesting things on the planet and even the potential for life. InSight is also the first mission dedicated exclusively to learning more about the planet's interior in an attempt to glean clues about how rocky terrestrial planets like Earth formed during the birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
If life did arise from those early, cozy conditions, it could have moved underground as the surface cooled and dried.
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