The presence of liquid water has been confirmed beneath the Martian south polar cap

By: April Carson



To assist confirm that salty water most likely exists between grains of ice or sediment beneath the ice cap at Mars' south pole, a Southwest Research Institute scientist tested mixtures of ice-brine as cold as -145 degrees Fahrenheit. Dr. David Stillman, a SwRI geophysicist, has verified oddly brilliant reflections recorded by the MARSIS subsurface sounding radar on ESA's Mars Express spacecraft using laboratory tests.


MARSIS uses a 130-foot antenna to bounce radio waves over a specific region and then collect and analyze the echoes or reflections. Any near-surface liquid water should provide a fierce bright signal, whereas ice and rock's radar signal would be much lower.


Stillman's tests revealed that at least some of the bright reflections were from mixtures of ice and water. The discovery is significant because any liquid water on the Martian surface could potentially harbor life, whereas pure ice or snow makes it impossible. Ice mixed with just 20 percent brine provides an energy source for bacteria in much the same way as the brine found in salt lakes on Earth. If the newly discovered subsurface Martian water is at least 20 percent salty, it could provide enough energy for microbes to eke out a living within their frigid confines.


Many researchers have disputed the existence of liquid water on Mars because traditional models assume the south polar cap experiences temperatures significantly lower than that of water.


Clay, hydrated salts, and saline ice have all been proposed as possible sources for the bright basal reflections. Previously published data, simulations, and new laboratory findings were all utilized by the Italian-led team looking into the proposed phenomena.



“Glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic areas contain lakes of liquid water, so we have Earth analogs for finding liquid water beneath ice,” says Stillman, a specialist in detecting water in any format – liquid, ice or absorbed – on planetary bodies and co-author of a paper describing these discoveries. “The exotic salts that we know to exist on Mars have remarkable ‘antifreeze' properties, allowing brines to stay liquid down to -103 degrees Fahrenheit. We conducted laboratory tests on these salts in order to learn how they would respond to radar.”


Stillman has more than a decade of expertise measuring the properties of materials at low temperatures to identify and characterize subsurface ice, unfrozen water, and the potential for life throughout the solar system. Stillman checked perchlorate brines in an SwRI environmental chamber that generates near-liquid-nitrogen temperatures at Mars-like pressures using his team's specialized Martian ‘ice simulators.’


The researchers found that the strength of the reflected radar signal was more than two orders of magnitude higher at perchlorate brines compared to pure water ice, providing the first experimental evidence of this effect. Since signals returning from these buried glaciers can be detected by orbiters and then used to map the ground, this technique reveals a new way to probe Mars' subsurface.


“My Italian coworkers reached out to see if my laboratory research data supported the existence of liquid water beneath the Martian ice cap,” Stillman added. “The study revealed that we don't need lakes of perchlorate and chloride brines, but that these brines may be found between the ice or sediments' grains and are enough to create a significant dielectric response. “It is similar to how seawater saturates grains of sand along the beach or how a slushie's ingredients permeate it, but at -103 degrees Fahrenheit below a mile of ice near the South Pole of Mars.”


The search for water in space is directly linked to the quest for possible habitability, because all known life necessitates it. Yet, in the past few years orbiting satellites have revealed evidence of water on Mars.


“In this case, ‘following the water’ has brought us to a point where life as we know it could not exist,” Stillman observed. “But it's still intriguing; who knows what extraterrestrial organisms may have gone down?” This is very interesting because it shows that even though it may be too cold for life to exist there, that doesn't mean that it will never form.






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About the Blogger:


April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com


To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav


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