The researchers noted that together, with the pressure of the, this lowers the melting point, allowing the lake to remain liquid, as happens on Earth.
The depth of the lake is impossible to determine using radar, which returns echoes from the boundary between rock and the bottom of the ice cap, meaning that the water could be anywhere between being as deep as Earth's Lake Vostok, to being a muddy layer just a meter thick.
Between May 2012 and December 2015, the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (or "MARSIS" for short) surveyed the region of Mars known as the Planum Australe, a 200-kilometer area on the planet's southern polar plain, which is composed of water ice, Carbon dioxide ice, and admixed dust. When pointed at the surface ice caps of the planet, it measures how radio waves penetrate and reflect back to the spacecraft.
Located at the edge of a more than three-billion-year-old ice cap covering Mars's south pole, the region known as Planum Australe would rank high on any list of the Red Planet's least-interesting locales. On Earth, microbial life persists down in the dark, frigid waters of one such lake. The evidence comes from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument (MARSIS) which is on the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft.
"It's probably not a very large lake". A member of the MARSIS team who is not an author of the study, Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Science that "the interpretation is plausible, but it's not quite a slam dunk yet".
European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft is depicted in orbit around Mars in artist's concept stereo illustration
If confirmed, this would be the most significant body of liquid water found on Mars to date. The profiles contain "evidence of liquid water trapped below the ice of the South Polar Layered Deposits", according to the study. In 2015, she led a Geophysical Research Letters paper that used SHARAD data to find an ice sheet in Arcadia Planitia in the northern hemisphere of Mars. That reflection is particularly strong at interfaces with liquid water, and shows up as a distinctively bright spot in visualizations of the data. Water is crucial to life as far as we understand it, but it's hard to come by on Mars.
Following news of the findings, social media was understandably enthused, with some wondering what it might mean for the search for extraterrestrial life. "This is just one small study area; it is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered", said Orosei and Dmitri Titov, ESA's Mars Express project scientist. A NASA spacecraft with the same mission and similar technology hasn't detected the body of water, suggesting that it may be transient and not the permanent source that life would need to survive.
Outside experts have not been able to confirm these findings with other radar detections, like SHARAD, the Shallow Radar sounder onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Water could actually be more common on Mars than we thought. "However, that also indicates that there might be much more liquid water in the Martian subsurface in other regions which we can not detect easily with MARSIS and SHARAD". Scientists believe the water is kept in liquid form by a salty brine that Orosei and colleagues speculatively describe as a "sludge".
The water on Mars is likely to be significantly colder than in Antarctica.
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