Using a radar instrument on an orbiting spacecraft, scientists have spotted what they said on Wednesday appears to be a sizable salt-laden lake under ice on the southern polar plain of Mars, a body of water they called a possible habitat for microbial life.
The reservoir they detected — roughly 12 miles (20 km) in diameter, shaped like a rounded triangle and located about a mile (1.5 km) beneath the ice surface — represents the first stable body of liquid water ever found on Mars.
Whether anywhere other than Earth has harbored life is one of the supreme questions in science, and the new findings offer tantalizing evidence, though no proof. Water is considered a fundamental ingredient for life.
The researchers said it could take years to determine whether something is actually living in this body of water, which resembles a subglacial lake on Earth, perhaps with a future mission drilling through the ice to sample the water below.
“This is the place on Mars where you have something that most resembles a habitat, a place where life could subsist,” said planetary scientist Roberto Orosei of Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Italy, who led the research published in the journal Science.
The detection was made using data collected between May 2012 and December 2015 by an instrument aboard the European Space Agency’s MarsExpress spacecraft that transmits radar pulses, which can penetrate the Martian surface and ice caps. (Reuters)
Here are photos of the remarkable variety that the surface of Mars presents.
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A location on Mars associated with the best-selling novel and Hollywood movie “The Martian” is seen in an image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken May 17, 2015. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
The south polar cap of Mars as it appeared to the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on April 17, 2000. (Photo: NASA/Handout via Reuters)
Nili Patera, one of the most active dune fields on the planet Mars, is shown in this handout photo taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter March 1, 2014. By monitoring the sand dune changes, NASA can determine how winds vary seasonally and year to year. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took this snapshot of Mars 11 hours before the planet made its closest approach to Earth on Aug. 26, 2003. (Photo: J. Bell (Cornell U.) and M. Wolff (SSI)/NASA/Reuters)
A view of the Noctis Labyrinthus region of Mars, perched high on the Tharsis rise in the upper reaches of the Valles Marineris canyon system, is seen in this NASA handout picture acquired on Aug. 31, 2013, by the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
The base of Mars’s Mount Sharp — the rover’s eventual science destination — is pictured in this NASA handout photo taken by the Curiosity rover. The image is a portion of a larger image taken by Curiosity’s 100-millimeter Mast Camera on Aug. 23, 2012. Scientists enhanced the color to show the Martian scene under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. (Photo: NASA/Reuters)
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity appears as a bluish dot near the lower right corner of this enhanced-color view from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken on June 27, 2013. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander’s Surface Stereo Imager shows two trenches dug by Phoenix’s Robotic Arm in this image taken June 8, 2008, the 14th Martian day after landing. Soil from the right trench, informally called “Baby Bear,” was delivered to Phoenix’s Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, on June 6, 2008. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
In this image released Jan. 19, 2005, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” has found an iron meteorite on Mars, the first meteorite of any type ever identified on another planet. The pitted, basketball-size object is mostly made of iron and nickel. (Photo: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Reuters)
A view of Ophir Chasma on the northern portion of the vast Mars canyon system, Valles Marineris, taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Aug. 10, 2015. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
This color image taken August 8, 2012 from NASA’s Curiosity rover, and released August 13, shows part of the wall of Gale Crater, the location on Mars where the rover landed on August 5, 2012. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Reuters)
Portions of the Martian surface are pictured, shot by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing many channels from 1 meter to 10 meters wide on a scarp in the Hellas impact basin on Mars. in this photograph taken January 14, 2011 and released by NASA March 9, 2011. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
An impact crater on Mars is seen in an image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 19, 2013 and released February 5, 2014. The crater spans approximately 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter and is surrounded by a large, rayed blast zone. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
Mars’ northern-most sand dunes are seen as they begin to emerge from their winter cover of seasonal carbon dioxide (dry) ice in this image acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter January 16, 2014. The steep lee sides of the dunes are also ice-free along the crest, allowing sand to slide down the dune. Dark splotches are places where ice cracked earlier in spring, releasing sand, according to a NASA news release. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
A rock outcrop called Link pops out from a Martian surface in this NASA handout image taken by the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover September 2, 2012 and released September 27, 2012. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Reuters)
A view of the surface of Mars released by NASA on March 7, 2017, shows viscous, lobate flow features commonly found at the bases of slopes in the mid-latitudes of Mars, and are often associated with gullies. These are bound by ridges that resemble terrestrial moraines, suggesting that these deposits are ice-rich, or may have been ice-rich in the past. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
This image, cropped from a larger panoramic image mosaic taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit panoramic camera, released by NASA March 18, 2004, shows the rover’s destination toward the hills nicknamed the “Columbia Hills.” The rover is currently positioned outside the view of this image, on the right. (Photo: NASA/Cornell/Reuters)
Mars’ Victoria Crater at Meridiani Planum is seen in this image taken by NASA’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera in this picture released October 6, 2006. The crater has been a long-term destination for the Mars Rover mission for the past 21 months, and is now being explored by Mars Rover Opportunity. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Reuters)
An image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows the surface of the planet with inclined layering known as cross-bedding in an outcrop called “Shaler” on a scale of a few tenths of a meter, or decimeters (1 decimeter is nearly 4 inches) in this NASA handout released January 15, 2013. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Reuters)
The surface of the planet Mars inside Gale’s Crater is shown as NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity drives toward a flat rock with pale veins that may hold clues to a wet history on the planet in this NASA handout photo released January 15, 2013. (Photo: NASA/Reuters)
This image from the right Mast Camera (Mastcam) of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows rough spherical features on the surface of the planet in an area called ‘Yellowknife Bay’ in this NASA handout released January 15, 2013. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Reuters)