Scientists from the Italian space agency have discovered a large underground lake on Mars, which could significantly increase the probability of life on the planet.
Using the MARSIS radar on the Mars Express satellite orbiting Mars, the scientists were able to identify the small lake underneath the South Pole of Earth’s closest neighbour.
“This is extraordinarily significant if the data can be replicated. It’s taken them many years to really calibrate the instrument used to be sure what is underneath the surface really exists,” Leo Enright, space commentator and member of the Board of Governors of the School of Cosmic Physics at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that it’s buried underneath the surface isn’t a big surprise, because liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars, it’s simply not possible because of the atmospheric pressure is too thin,” Enright said.
“For water to exist under the surface, it has to be deep and really salty, and that last part is significant because that is exactly the type of place you go look for lifeforms.”
Scientists have long said Mars could potentially host life, and finding liquid water on the red planet is seen as one of the most important aspects of that search for extraterrestrial life.
Over the last 1 years, a number of different Mars missions have found increasingly more evidence of water on Mars, including large sheets of ice under the surface and salty mudflows on the surface.
However, pure liquid water has never been found until now.
“Many scientists have said, ‘Where there is water, there is the potential for life.’ So first, you must find water. This is the breakthrough we have been waiting for, but be cautious, because there have been false alarms in the past,” Enright said.
“You can certainly be sure that planning will begin on some kind of mission to extricate a sample. The problem is that this water is located 1.5km underneath the south pole, so there is an awful lot of ice to be drilled to before you reach this liquid water,” he added.
In the coming years, several new Mars missions are planned, including new rovers by both American space agency NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
NASA is planning to launch a new rover as early as July 2020 with a mission to comprehensively determine whether life ever arose on Mars, while characterising the climate and geology of the red planet and preparing for human exploration.
The European and Russian rover, ExoMars, is scheduled to land in 2021 and will continue the search for life.
Despite these plans, chances of humans reaching the newfound lake in the near future are slim, since the ExoMars mission will not drill deeper than two metres
“All the technology to drill through this ice to the lake doesn’t exist yet so it will probably take at least another 25 years before we will be examining this.”