Subsurface lakes raise new questions about life on Mars

New radar data from the Mars Express spacecraft reveals three saltwater lakes below the surface of the red planet. In this episode of Arizona in Focus, we look at what the lakes might be like and whether they indicate life on Mars.

Subsurface saltwater lakes recently discovered on Mars

Arizona in Focus

Arizona in Focus is a podcast from Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS. This season we are focusing on science and technology stories that explore everything from driverless cars to innovating a vaccine during the pandemic.

PHOENIX – Planetary scientists have confirmed the existence of a large saltwater lake under the icy surface of Mars, and they discovered three more lakes beneath the red planet’s south pole.

The discovery, which was published in the journal Nature Astronomy in September, is based on radar data obtained from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft.

“Mars actually has a lot of water in a lot of different places and a lot of different forms,” said Jonathon Hill, a mission planner at Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility. “But none of them are in forms that would even potentially, you know, provide for current life somewhere. This (new research) I think, has the potential to be different.”

In 2018, the spacecraft’s Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding detected an underground lake of water about 4,921 feet below the ice, according to the European Space Agency’s website. The three new lakes vary in size, but the largest is 65,616 feet by 98,425 feet. Scientists say the lakes likely have a high salt content to remain liquid in temperatures as low as minus 225 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most of the water and ice found on Mars is located in the south polar ice cap. New research finds there are subglacial lakes in the region. (Photo courtesy of NASA Solar System Treks)

Mars used to be “warmer and wetter with water flowing across the surface, much like early Earth,” the European Space Agency said.

“While it is not possible for water to remain stable on the surface today, the new result opens the possibility that an entire system of ancient lakes might exist underground, perhaps millions or even billions of years old,” it said. “They would be ideal locations to search for evidence of life on Mars, albeit very difficult to reach.”

Astronomer Jennifer Hanley at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff studies liquid stability throughout the Solar system including on Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan and Jupiter’s moon Europa. She said to understand lakes on Mars, people should think about how salt reacts on roadways to clear snow and ice.

“You can actually see it form little liquid droplets,” she said. “But that’s the key. It’s droplets, right? There’s not a lot of actual liquid there.”

Researchers believe something similar happens on Mars. With an average high of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, any liquid is probably quite salty.

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Mike Sori, an assistant professor in the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences Department at Purdue University in Indiana, said the polar ice caps of Mars are about 621 miles in diameter. He describes the liquid water as “slush or sludge” and believes it is localized on the planet. Even though this water exists, Sori said there is a slim chance life is present on Mars.

“So it wouldn’t be a lake that has existed for billions of years that, you know, potentially has life on it,” he said. “We think it would be really just a sort of transient phenomenon.”

Future missions to Mars may reveal some answers. In July, NASA launched the Perseverance Rover, which is on its way to the red planet and is expected to land in February. Hill said he hopes this rover, which is the size of a Hummer vehicle, will land in an ancient lake bed.

“Its specific goal is to not just find good samples, but to pick them up, cache them and leave them behind for the next mission to bring back to Earth,” Hill said.

Another hope is to have rock and soil samples in researchers’ hands in the near future. Those samples, scientists hope, eventually will help unlock the secrets of the red planet.

Wednesday, Cronkite News’ podcast Arizona in Focus continues with a look at how driverless car technology could change the way we think about transportation in the future.

Alexa Zoellner

News Reporter, Phoenix

Alexa Zoellner was born and raised in Arizona, and she expects to graduate in December 2020 with a bachelor of arts degree in broadcast journalism. Zoellner was a media relations intern for ASU Athletics with an emphasis in baseball. She also is a professional dancer for the IFL.