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Water Today Title November 27, 2020

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By Cori Marshall

On July 25, 2018, researchers at the Italian Space Agency (ISA) published an article outlining the evidence for a presence of subglacial liquid water on Mars. The ISA team used the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument, which is on the Mars Express spacecraft which has been in orbit of the Red Planet for fifteen years.

According to the article Radar Evidence of Subglacial Liquid Water on Mars, "radar profiles collected between May 2012 and December 2015 contain evidence of liquid water trapped below the ice of the South Polar Layered Deposits, [and] anomalously bright subsurface reflections are evident within a well-defined, 20-kilometre-wide zone." The areas immediately surrounding this area were less reflective.

"Quantitative analysis of the radar signals shows that this bright feature has a high relative dielectric permittivity (less than 15), matching that of water-bearing materials. [The ISA team] interpret this feature as a stable body of liquid water on Mars." - Radar Evidence of Subglacial Liquid Water on Mars, R. Orosei Et al.

Isabelle Raymond-Bouchard, Postdoctoral Fellow at the McGill Space Institute in Microbiology and Astrobiology, said the discovery is "very exciting, for what it could mean for Mars, though obviously, we don't know a lot about it right now."

"In general most microbiologists see the potential for life on the surface of Mars to be fairly low," Raymond-Bouchard said, "because it is harsh, dry, and there is so much radiation."

Raymond-Bouchard underlined that "when you have a potential subglacial liquid body of water underground, the conditions might be, could be a little better for life, certainly for microbial life."

The ISA paper described the area where the water was observed as a "20-kilometre-wide zone", but how much water is actually present? "It has been described as a lake, though it could be just muddy water, it is unclear at this point," she said.

The discovery of water on Mars definitely raises questions about the future exploration of the Red Planet. Raymond-Bouchard believes that "it will renew and increase interest in terms of the potential for life." She added that "it is very tricky because of this idea of planetary protection, which is very debated."

Raymond-Bouchard described planetary protection as "areas where there could be life preserves if there ever were life on Mars." These protected areas would be established in areas where it is believed there could be the potential for life.

The discovery of subglacial water on Mars may not provide us with definitive answers in the short term, though it will undoubtedly spark imaginations and possibly more missions to our planetary neighbour.


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