The understanding of Mars has previously been that life couldn’t have formed there because consistent bodies of water needed to sustain life had not been discovered on the planet. That is until now.
Scientists have discovered a massive underground lake for the first time ever raising hopes that more water could be found and that possibly even life could exist.
The report led by Italian researches in the US journal Science have said that they discovered the lake, which is about 20 kilometres wide, under a layer of Martian ice.
The body of water was detected using a radar instrument on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. This is the largest body of liquid water ever discovered on the Red Planet.
“Water is there. We have no more doubt,” said co-author of the report and the Italian space agency’s Mars Express mission manager, Enrico Flamini in a press conference.
Scientists have said that though Mars is now cold, barren and dry, it used to be warm and wet some 3.6 billion years ago and used to house plenty of liquid water. Signs of contemporary water on the planet today will help researchers to determine if life ever existed or may even still exist on the planet.
“This is a stunning result that suggests water on Mars is not a temporary trickle like previous discoveries but a persistent body of water that provides the conditions for life for extended periods of time,” said associate professor at Swinburne University in Australia, Alan Duffy, who was not involved in the study.
Access to water on Mars could also assist the mission to transport humans to Mars, with NASA aiming to send explorers to our neighbouring planet in the next decade.
However, whether the water could support life is still up for debate as this particular lake is believed to be neither swimmable nor drinkable. The water is 1.6 kilometres below the icy surface of the planet in a freezing and barren environment.
Some experts believe that it would still not be possible for even microbial forms of life to form since the lake is so cold and fixed with a heavy dose of Martian salts and minerals.
The temperature of the water is also believed to be below the freezing point of pure water but remains in liquid form due to the presence of magnesium, calcium and sodium.
But the discovery of the water does not provide any definitive answers as of yet and further research is needed.
“This is a discovery of extraordinary significance, and is bound to heighten speculation about the presence of living organisms on the Red Planet,” said Fred Watson from the Australian Astronomical Observatory, who was not involved in this particular study.
“Caution needs to be exercised, however, as the concentration of salts needed to keep the water liquid could be fatal for any microbial life similar to Earth’s,” he added.