Scientists discover underground lake on Mars

Scientists are hailing a study published Wednesday that indicates a buried lake of salty water appears to be hiding below the surface of Mars, raising the possibility of finding life on the red planet.

Researchers have detected a 12.5 mile-wide body of liquid water below the surface of Mars using a radar zipping around the red planet.

Buried a mile beneath Mars’s southern polar ice caps, the team think they’ve found a salty lake that might be able to harbor life, a discovery hailed as a “major milestone” for our understanding of the planet. Their research was published in the journal Science.

Roberto Orosei from Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics and his team probed radar data from an instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft. Launched in 2003, it’s been exploring the red planet for almost 15 years.

The craft’s “Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding” (MARSIS) came across strange echoes that most likely indicate a large body of water about a mile below the planet’s southern polar ice cap, Orosei said in a video explaining the discovery.

These weird echoes were stronger than those from the surface. On Earth, this only happens when radars probe subglacial bodies of water like Lake Vostok in Antarctica. “We found, in fact, that any other explanation for these very strong echoes was not really tenable in light of [our] evidence,” Orosei said.

The team thinks the lake is at least 3 feet deep but can’t say for sure because the radar signal is absorbed by liquid very quickly.

Because the ice above the lake is incredibly clear, scientists think the water must be very cold. Liquid touching the ice, Orosei said, is probably between -14 and -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Although this is well below freezing, high concentrations of salt can keep water liquid at incredibly low temperatures, he explained. It’s why trucks sprinkle salt on icy roads in winter.

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