The announcement by Italian researchers that they had used radar to detect a 12-mile-wide lake under the surface of Mars has raised the tantalizing possibility that there’s life on the Red Planet. We asked Taylor Perron, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, what his reaction was. Here’s what he wrote back to us:
What do you think of the study findings?
Scientists have suspected for decades that there might be liquid water under the polar ice caps on Mars, partly because we know there are lakes underneath ice caps on Earth, in Greenland and Antarctica. But Mars is colder, so finding evidence of liquid water there is always exciting, and it’s not easy to detect water beneath the surface of another planet.
What did you think of the methodology?
The scientists who analyzed these radar echoes were careful to consider all the things that could have made the echoes they measured, including explanations that don’t involve liquid water, and they were able to rule out most of those explanations. It isn’t 100% certain, but it’s likely that they really have found a pocket of liquid water – either a cluster of underground pools, or a layer of liquid water mixed in with the soil.
Do you think liquid water under high pressure with dissolved salts would be hospitable to life?
Liquid water is a basic requirement for life on Earth, and Mars has such a thin atmosphere that living underground would be a great way for microbes to stay protected from radiation that’s harmful to life. However, the same dissolved chemicals that might have kept this water pocket from freezing could also be harmful to life. Microbes might be able to live there, but they would have to be similar to microbes that are adapted to extreme environments on Earth.
Do we need to go to Mars to find out what’s in this lake?
One of the exciting things about this discovery is that there could be other liquid water pockets like this one – the place these scientists studied is one of the few places where there are currently enough measurements to be able to detect liquid water underneath the surface. A part of Mars where there are underground reservoirs of liquid water would certainly be an exciting place to explore.