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What the detection of an underground lake could mean for life on Mars

A simulated Mars Rover at Walt Disney World Resort may soon be the only Mars Rover left.
A simulated Mars Rover at Walt Disney World Resort may soon be the only Mars Rover left.
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A new report in Science Magazine details the first discovery of stable liquid water on Mars, about 1,500 meters below the surface – a finding that drastically increases the chance the planet could host life.

Researchers at Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics detected the lake using a radar instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, which has been orbiting Mars since 2003. The radar (the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding, or MARSIS for short) transmits radio waves toward Mars, which reflect back and give information about the planet’s surface and below.

Over the course of three years, MARSIS consistently detected a 20-kilometer wide area with a distinctive reflection under the planet’s south polar ice cap, indicating the presence of a material different than the ice above it and rock below it. Scientists are pretty sure it’s water, able to maintain its liquid form in subzero temperatures thanks to massive amounts of salt lowering its freezing point.

The extreme salinity and low temperature don’t make this specific lake promising for life, but its presence indicates other subsurface lakes in warmer areas of the planet may exist – and possibly be more hospitable. Guest host Libby Denkmann speaks with The Planetary Society’s chief scientist Bruce Betts about the findings and the likely next steps for the science community.

With guest host Libby Denkmann 


Bruce Betts, chief scientist at The Planetary Society