Mars: New Research Challenges Existence of Liquid Water Lake Under Planet’s South Pole

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 8, 2024 10:00
Mars New Research Challenges Existence Of Liquid Water Lake Under Planet's South Pole

Recent studies have cast doubt on the presence of a liquid water lake beneath the ice cap at Mars' south pole, a discovery that initially raised hopes for finding microbial life on the Red Planet.

In 2018, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite detected strong radar reflections suggesting a 12-mile-long lake below the Martian surface. However, new research from Cornell University provides a less dramatic but comprehensive explanation for these radar signals, indicating that they may be due to natural radar wave interference rather than liquid water.

Investigating the Radar Reflections

The initial excitement stemmed from radar data collected by the Mars Express satellite, which revealed bright reflections from beneath the south polar ice cap, similar to those seen with subglacial lakes on Earth. These reflections led scientists to hypothesize the existence of a liquid water lake, potentially harboring microbial life.

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Mars New Research Challenges Existence Of Liquid Water Lake Under Planet's South Pole

Supporting this hypothesis, Cambridge University researchers found patterns in the surface ice consistent with a subglacial lake. However, recent simulations conducted by Cornell researchers suggest that small variations in the composition and thickness of the ice layers could produce similar radar reflections without the presence of liquid water.

Daniel Lalich, a research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and the lead author of the new study, argues that the radar signals can be explained by constructive interference of radar waves. "I can’t say it’s impossible that there’s liquid water down there, but we’re showing that there are much simpler ways to get the same observation without having to stretch that far, using mechanisms and materials that we already know exist there."

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"But just through random chance you can create the same observed signal in the radar," said Lalich.

Known to exist at the Martian poles, varying the ice layers' composition and spacing. The results showed that the observed bright reflections could be produced by these natural variations in the ice.

Lalich elaborates, "Just through random chance, you can create the same observed signal in the radar. This is the first time we have a hypothesis that explains the entire population of observations below the ice cap, without having to introduce anything unique or odd."

The New Findings

The new research provides a detailed and more realistic model to explain the bright radar reflections initially thought to indicate liquid water. By simulating various layering scenarios, the team demonstrated that small variations in ice composition and layer thickness could cause radar waves to interfere constructively, amplifying their reflections. These reflections, while similar to those produced by liquid water, do not necessarily indicate its presence.

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Lalich’s study, titled "Small Variations in Ice Composition and Layer Thickness Explain Bright Reflections Below Martian Polar Cap Without Liquid Water," published in Science Advances, outlines how the bright radar signals can be produced by known materials and conditions on Mars. "The idea that there would be liquid water even somewhat near the surface would have been really exciting," Lalich said. "I just don’t think it’s there."

Implications for the Search for Life on Mars

The potential existence of liquid water on Mars is a tantalizing prospect because it raises the possibility of microbial life. While robotic explorers like NASA’s Perseverance rover have provided extensive evidence of ancient water flows on the Martian surface, the current conditions at the poles make the existence of liquid water unlikely. The temperature and pressure on Mars are significantly different from those on Earth, complicating the possibility of liquid water existing below the ice caps.

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Despite this, the search for life on Mars continues. Scientists are exploring other regions and utilizing advanced technologies to detect signs of past or present life. The new research from Cornell underscores the importance of considering simpler explanations and thoroughly testing hypotheses before concluding the existence of liquid water. Lalich’s findings suggest that bright radar reflections can be caused by natural ice variations, rather than requiring the presence of liquid water.

Cornell's study has sparked a discussion within the scientific community, with some researchers expressing skepticism. "Cambridge scientists said they had not seen the new research, but said the unusual patterns they found in the surface would not be explained away by radar interference," notes a statement from the Cambridge team.

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While this new understanding may reduce the likelihood of finding liquid water at Mars' south pole, it does not diminish the importance of continued exploration. Robotic missions and future human explorers will still play a critical role in uncovering Mars' secrets and assessing its habitability. The Perseverance rover, for example, is currently investigating an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater, which could provide valuable clues about the planet's watery past and its potential to support life.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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5 comments on «Mars: New Research Challenges Existence of Liquid Water Lake Under Planet’s South Pole»

  • H Munster

    There is no life other than on planet earth. all of this is a boondoggle to spend trillions on useless space “exploration” how about feeding the hungry instead ?

    Reply
  • David Wishengrad Exorcist, 1st class

    I think subterranean liquid water would likely be found at many locations on Mars given that even molten magma contains water.

    Reply
  • David Wishengrad Exorcist, 1st class

    P.S. I was my tech at the time, “SmartLister”, that was used to fabricate the Phoenix Lander from 3D class project computer model that made the definitive discovery of vast amounts of water ice on Mars. We have to beat Russia and China to the resources of the solar system or they will immediately use the resources for tyranny and control of all people.

    Make no mistake about it. If they beat us to the resources of the solar system humanity will be enslaved.

    Reply
  • David Wishengrad Exorcist, 1st class

    H Munster, look at the moon. We need to protect the life here from large natural disasters as well let’s feed the starving children. It isn’t really about finding life someplace else It’s about protecting what we already have. The nations that do not care about people will be the first to the resources of the solar system and use that against the rest of the life if we stand idle in this department. That’s not to say that those on our side will not abuse that power of resources for themselves and they likely will, but It just might be a tad more manageable than having someone with psychosis threatening all life on Earth. The Truth that is the cure and prevention of all needless and preventable suffering and death is the very Truth of the Importance of Life itself that Life is Most Important. Those things can only happen after that Truth has been dismissed and stifled.

    Reply
  • EMIP

    All the more reason for human exploration of Mars to answer such important questions.

    Reply
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