Discovery of huge underground lake raises prospects of life on Mars

A satellite orbiting Mars has found evidence of a huge underground lake of liquid water, in a discovery greeted by scientists as “stunning”, “incredible”, and “of extraordinary significance”.

Radar measurements taken from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter spotted the 12 mile-wide stretch of water at the base of a thick slab of polar ice in a region known as Planum Australe.

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It is the first time that researchers have identified a stable body of liquid water on the red planet. The finding raises the likelihood that any microbial life that arose on Mars may continue to eke out a rather bleak existence deep beneath the surface.

This image provided by the ESA/INAF shows an artist’s rendering of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars. At upper right is the planet’s southern ice cap. The inset image at lower right shows the area where radar readings were made. The blue triangle indicates an area of very high reflectivity, interpreted as being caused by the presence of a reservoir of water, about a mile below the surface. 

Scott Hubbard, a professor of astronautics at Stanford University who served as NASA’s first Mars program director in 2000, called it ‘tremendously exciting’. ‘Our mantra back then was `follow the water.’ That was the one phrase that captured everything,” Hubbard said. ‘So this discovery, if it stands, is just thrilling because it’s the culmination of that philosophy.’ The study, published Wednesday in the journal Science, does not determine how deep the reservoir actually is.

It may be some time before scientists can investigate the water under the Martian south pole to see if any life lurks there. “Getting there and acquiring the final evidence that this is indeed a lake will not be an easy task,” said Orosei. “It will require flying a robot there which is capable of drilling through 1.5km of ice and this will certainly require some technological developments that at the moment are not available.”

For now, the researchers will search other sites on Mars for signs of more subterranean lakes or aquifers. Writing in the journal, the authors say: “There is no reason to conclude that the presence of subsurface water on Mars is limited to a single location.”

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