The find raises the possibility that more of the same – and maybe even life – exists there
First lake of liquid water discovered on Mars
A massive underground lake has been detected for the first time on Mars, raising the possibility that more water – and maybe even life – exists there, international astronomers said Wednesday.
Located under a layer of Martian ice, the lake is about 12 miles (20 kilometers) wide, said the report led by Italian researchers in the US journal Science.
It is the largest body of liquid water ever found on the Red 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 Alan Duffy, an associate professor at Swinburne University in Australia, who was not involved in the study.
Mars is now cold, barren and dry but used to be warm and wet. It was home to plenty of liquid water and lakes at least 3.6 billion years ago.
Scientists are eager to find signs of contemporary water, because such discoveries are key to unlocking the mystery of whether life ever formed on Mars in its ancient past, or if it might persist today.
Being able to access water sources could also help humans survive on a future crewed mission to Earth's neighboring planet.
This particular lake, however, would not be drinkable, and lies almost a mile deep (1.5 kilometers) beneath the icy surface in a harsh and frigid environment.
Whether microbial forms of life lie within is a matter of debate.
Some experts are skeptical of the possibility since the lake is so cold and briny, and mixed with a heavy dose of dissolved Martian salts and minerals.
The temperature is likely below the freezing point of pure water, but can remain liquid due to the presence of magnesium, calcium, and sodium.
"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, of the Australian Astronomical Observatory.
"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," added Mr Watson, who was not involved in the research.
The discovery was made using radar instruments on board the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, which launched in 2003.
The tool is called the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), and was designed to find subsurface water by sending radar pulses that penetrate the surface and ice caps.
MARSIS "then measures how the radio waves propagate and reflect back to the spacecraft," said the study.
These reflections "provide scientists with information about what lies beneath the surface."
Lead author Roberto Orosei of the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Bologna, Italy surveyed a region called Planum Australe, located in the southern ice cap of Mars, from May 2012 until December 2015.
A total of 29 sets of radar samplings showed a "very sharp change in its associated radar signal," allowing scientists to map the outlines of the lake.
"The radar profile of this area is similar to that of lakes of liquid water found beneath the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets on Earth, suggesting that there is a subglacial lake at this location on Mars," said the report.