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A Lake on Mars? New data suggests liquid water lies beneath planet's southern pole

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A team of Italian scientists has found the strongest evidence yet of liquid water on Mars! Here's an exclusive Q&A with the lead scientists, Roberto Orosei and Elena Pettinelli. 

Q: Tell us what you discovered under the surface of Mars?

Elena: What we have found is that below the South Polar Layered Deposits there is an area characterized by strong radar echoes that we interpreted as a body of liquid water. We do not know if it is a lake or an aquifer. Its extension is about 100 squared km, its depth is undetermined but at least of few meters.

Q: Were there any similarities to the liquid water found on Mars compared to what we have here on Earth?

Elena: Our finding is very similar to what can be found on Earth below the ice cap in Antarctica and Greenland using Radio Echo Sounding. Such lakes and bodies of water can be as deep as 3.5 km on Earth. On Mars we have found the water at 1.5km.

A Lake on Mars? New data suggests liquid water lies beneath planet's southern pole
This image provided by the ESA/INAF shows an artist's rendering of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars. At upper right is the planet's southern ice cap. The inset image at lower right shows the area where radar readings were made. The blue triangle indicates an area of very high reflectivity, interpreted as being caused by the presence of a reservoir of water, about a mile below the surface. (Davide Coero Borga/INAF/ESA)

Q: It took many years to make this detection, how does it feel to have this study out to the public?

Roberto: The first feeling is relief, as it was very long and arduous to make it to the end of this investigation. I personally prefer to not cultivate pride, but achieving this goal was truly necessary to defend our credibility as scientists, after so many years of skepticism by our colleagues.

Elena: We worked so many years on this research being aware of the presence of water in that area, but we were not able to prove it for a long time. We had to collect data for few years and find the best way to process and interpret the data. We discuss for months about possible alternative explanations, but we could not find anything different from: liquid water! We feel satisfied that our efforts have been finally rewarded.

Q: Just how big of a deal is this discovery to the world of space?

Elena: This is surely an important discovery which may open new challenges for future planetary exploration. In addition, this body of water could be a good candidate to look for the presence of life on Mars being a potential habitat for microorganisms and biological signatures.

Q: What does this discovery mean for future studies of the Red Planet?

Elena: Finding a body of liquid water beneath Mars South polar cap has various implications. First of all, it provides a valuable confirmation that the water that once flowed abundantly over the Martian surface in the form of seas, lakes and rivers now fill the pores of the subsurface sediments and rocks. Secondly this discovery will burst new research on exobiology. Finally, it will put some constraints on Martian geothermal and hydrological models. All these issues will certainly inspire new and ambitious missions. 

Q: What’s next for this research?

Elena: Look for more water! Extend the investigated area to search for other bright reflections and signatures of the hydraulic system below the polar cap.

Want to know more about this break through discovery? Head to Science Magazine for the full publication.