Credit: Nicolas Lobos via Unsplash

Water on Mars: the red planet’s hidden secrets

By Thomas Such

Nasa has discovered water on Mars, but does this mean there is life on the red planet?

After everything 2020 has thrown at us, would it be entirely implausible to expect an alien invasion before the year is through? Economies grinding to a halt, a global pandemic, and unprecedented global restrictions all would have been unthinkable a mere year ago, so why not aliens? Recently the European Space Agency (ESA) has put us one step closer, with the discovery of water on Mars.

Researchers first used the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) data in 2018 to theorise the existence of a 20km wide lake more than 1.5km under the southern polar cap. The existence of this lake was first established based on 29 observations between 2012 and 2015. The current project, however, has analysed more than 134 radar profiles between 2010 and 2019. The latest analysis has not only confirmed the lake originally discovered by scientists, but also three small bodies of water surrounding the main lake, though scientists have not yet ascertained whether these are connected to the main body of water. The data was provided from the ESA Mars Express Spacecraft, in orbit around the red planet since 2003 using MARSIS.

It has since been confirmed that the area containing the lakes, the biggest of which is now estimated at 30km with the smaller bodies each several kilometres, measures around 75,000 square kilometres, or an area around the size of Scotland. 

However, the excitement for scientists stems from the suggestion that the lakes themselves may be liquid water, a first for the red planet. Whilst it is estimated some 87% of Mars’ water evaporated into space due to the evaporation of the planet’s atmosphere, the remaining 13% was prior thought to be contained in the form of ice. These ice layers are concentrated primarily around the poles of the planet with ice caps being made up of layers of ice and dust covering both the north and south of Mars. Furthermore, while Mars some 4.3bn years ago was theorised to have a northern ocean of similar size and water mass to Earth’s existing Arctic Ocean, the current underground lakes are found on the planet’s southern pole. 

The existence of liquid water would be an interesting development as liquid water raises the possibility of life on Mars. Whereas life cannot be supported by water trapped in ice, liquid water would allow life to exist on the red planet. 

NASA has been investigating the possibility of life on Mars since the 1996 unveiling of ALH84001, an asteroid of Martian origin proving life existed on the planet more than 4.5 billion years ago, and potentially much more recent as the asteroid only left the planet around 15 million years ago. The presence of liquid water uncovered as part of the ESA study gives definitive evidence that there could be some form of life still on Mars, a revelation coming mere months after research on Venus showed us life may indeed be found in many parts of our solar system.  

However, don’t get carried away with the idea of little green men revealing themselves just yet. Scientists across the world are now locked into heated debate over whether the lakes actually exist. The team from the European Space Agency who unveiled the project believe the data collected clearly shows the presence of liquid water. However, many scientists, including some NASA researchers, have contended the “lakes” may still be frozen. No previous data has suggested water so far under Mars could be liquid with the heat of the sun failing to penetrate more than 1.5km beneath the surface. If indeed the lakes did prove to be liquid, they would likely contain some magnesium or chlorine-based salts saturating the water. Recent studies have shown this could lead to the water remaining liquid at temperatures of up to -123 degrees Celsius. 

The debate over whether the lakes are liquid, and if they are filled with these salts as theorised, will surely stop the speculation of aliens soon walking amongst us. More research should come from these intriguing findings, but Europe must move fast if they want the ESA to continue being at the forefront of Martian science. In 2021, the Chinese Tianwen-1 mission will enter Martian orbit around February, deploying a rover to the surface, completed with equipment similar in nature to the MARSIS software used to reveal the new lakes. This will give the Chinese a significant advantage in the rapidly unfolding Martian race to discover life.

Will 2020 end in a bang and reveal aliens to us mere humans? Probably not. But the research carried out by the ESA has proved to be a fascinating development and one which scientists hope will shed more life on Mars. Keep your fingers crossed! Hopefully the scientists are right – we won’t yet see green men meeting us in their flying saucers!


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