A huge lake of salty water appears to be buried deep in Mars, raising the possibility of finding life on the red planet, scientists reported on Wednesday.
The discovery, based on observations by a European spacecraft, generated excitement from experts.
“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,” he said. “So this discovery, if it stands, is just thrilling because it’s the culmination of that philosophy.”
The study, published in the journal Science, does not determine how deep the reservoir actually is. This means that scientists cannot specify whether it is 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 20km-wide reservoir lies below ice about 1.5km thick in an area close to the planet’s south pole.
They spent at least two years examining the data to make sure they had 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.
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