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Large body of water found on Mars, researchers say

A huge lake of salty water appears to be buried deep in Mars, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of find­ing life on the red plan­et.

The dis­cov­ery, based on obser­va­tions by a Euro­pean space­craft, gen­er­at­ed excite­ment from experts. Water is essen­tial to life as we know it, and sci­en­tists have long sought to prove that the liq­uid is present on Mars.

If these researchers are right, this is the first time we’ve found evi­dence of a large water body on Mars,” said Cassie Stu­ur­man, a geo­physi­cist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas who found signs of an enor­mous Mar­t­ian ice deposit in 2016.

Scott Hub­bard, a pro­fes­sor of astro­nau­tics at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty who served as NASA’s first Mars pro­gram direc­tor in 2000, called it “tremen­dous­ly excit­ing.”

Our mantra back then was ‘fol­low the water.’ That was the one phrase that cap­tured every­thing,” Hub­bard said. “So this dis­cov­ery, if it stands, is just thrilling because it’s the cul­mi­na­tion of that phi­los­o­phy.”

The study, pub­lished Wednes­day in the jour­nal Sci­ence, does not deter­mine how deep the reser­voir actu­al­ly is. This means that sci­en­tists can’t spec­i­fy whether it’s an under­ground pool, an aquifer-like body, or just a lay­er of sludge.

To find the water, Ital­ian researchers ana­lyzed radar sig­nals col­lect­ed over three years by the Euro­pean Space Agen­cy’s Mars Express space­craft. Their results sug­gest that a 12-mile-wide (20 kilo­me­ters) reser­voir lies below ice about a mile (1.5 kilo­me­ters) thick in an area close to the plan­et’s south pole.

They spent at least two years exam­in­ing the data to make sure they’d detect­ed water, not ice or anoth­er sub­stance.

I real­ly have no oth­er expla­na­tion,” said astro­physi­cist Rober­to Oro­sei of Italy’s Nation­al Insti­tute of Astro­physics in Bologna and lead author of the study.

Mars is very cold, but the water might have been kept from freez­ing by dis­solved salts. It’s the same as when you put salt on a road, said Kirsten Siebach, a plan­e­tary geol­o­gist at Rice Uni­ver­si­ty who was­n’t part of the study.

This water would be extreme­ly cold, right at the point where it’s about to freeze. And it would be salty. Those are not ide­al con­di­tions for life to form,” Siebach said.

Still, she said, there are microbes on Earth that have been able to adapt to envi­ron­ments like that.

Oro­sei said, “It’s tempt­ing to think that this is the first can­di­date place where life could per­sist” on Mars.

He sus­pects Mars may con­tain oth­er hid­den bod­ies of water, wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.

Our plan­e­tary neigh­bor has a pop­u­lar tar­get for explo­ration, with rovers on its sur­face and oth­er probes exam­in­ing the plan­et from orbit. In May, NASA launched anoth­er space­craft, the InSight Mars lan­der, that will dig under the sur­face after it reach­es a flat plain just north of the Mar­t­ian equa­tor in Novem­ber.

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