A team of scientists recently discovered a large body of liquid water beneath the southern ice cap of Mars. The presence of liquid water, an essential ingredient for life as we know it, could help inform the search for both past and extant life on the Red Planet. See how the discovery was made using radar technology and learn what scientists think about the potential of life on Mars, which sometimes involves taking a note from our own planet.
Liquid Water Found on Mars
Published August 15, 2018
Onscreen: Scientists just discovered liquid water on Mars.
Vlada Stamenkovic : I’m absolutely amazed that this is finally there because it’s really important.
Onscreen: Liquid water is an essential ingredient for life as we know it.
Stamenkovic: This is giving us hope to say, “Well, it would make sense to go back to Mars and really start seeing Mars as a potential place where life still could exist.”
Onscreen: Rivers once flowed on the planet’s surface. Today, large water ice caps cover hundreds of miles at the north and south poles but stable bodies of liquid water were unknown until now. The Mars Express mission used radar to penetrate the polar ice caps.
Stamenkovic: What radar is doing—it is sending electromagnetic waves that are penetrating into the soil.
Onscreen: Different materials reflect back with varying brightness. Scientists believe bright radar reflections from a mile beneath the surface of the southern ice cap are a sign of liquid water. Salts can keep the water liquid, even at temperatures of about -90°F.
So can life actually exist in such an extreme environment? We don’t know yet but recent discoveries at our own southern ice cap give some scientists hope.
Brent Christner: One interesting analogy is to think of the context for life as we know it in Antarctica 30 years ago. At that time, we thought the conditions underneath the ice sheet were simply too extreme for life to exist. Now, 30 years later, we know that Antarctica is essentially the largest wetland on the planet and we view the subglacial environment as an oasis for life.
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- © WGBH Educational Foundation 2018
- (main image: Mars and water droplet)