Scientists detect an underground lake at Mars' Southern pole. But it's c-c-c-o-l-d.

If confirmed by future observations, this would be the most significant discovery of liquid water on Mars yet.

The Mars Express MARSIS instrument
The Mars Express MARSIS instrument. Image by NASA/JPL/CORBY WASTE

Underneath one mile of ice at the southern pole of Mars is a large, stable body of water, scientists have concluded.

The spacecraft known as Mars Express deployed an instrument in 2005 called Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), which uses radar in the 4-5 MHz range, that studied the southern pole of the planet from about mid-2012 to December 2014. The MARSIS craft used low-frequency electromagnetic waves to “see” what reflects back from the planet surface, and every indication from that collected data involving 29 separate observations points to one conclusion: The body of water is real.

It’s likely composed of liquid water, at about -10 Celsius, and salts of sodium, magnesium, and calcium, which are abundant on the surface of Mars. The salts would allow a lower melting point.

The Mars Express spacecraft with 40-meter MARSIS antenna deployed. (Image by NASA/JPL/CORBY WASTE)

There have been previous studies that have indicated water on Mars and other evidence also exists for water on the surface of the planet, including condensation accumulating on surface landers, as well as subterranean ice deposits that have been discovered.

Of course, when there’s water, life should logically follow, right?

It’s possible. According to Roberto Orosei, a co-investigator of the MARSIS instrument at the University of Bologna in Italy and lead author of the new study, “There are microorganisms that are capable of surviving well below zero [on Earth] even without being in contact with water, and there are microorganisms that can use the salt, presumably the salt in the water on Mars... for their metabolism."

The abstract of the study, published in Science, reads: “The presence of liquid water at the base of the martian polar caps has long been suspected but not observed... Radar profiles collected between May 2012 and December 2015 contain evidence of liquid water trapped below the ice of the South Polar Layered Deposits. Anomalously bright subsurface reflections are evident within a well-defined, 20-kilometer-wide zone centered at 193°E, 81°S, which is surrounded by much less reflective areas. Quantitative analysis of the radar signals shows that this bright feature has high relative dielectric permittivity (>15), matching that of water-bearing materials. We interpret this feature as a stable body of liquid water on Mars.”

Artistic impression of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars, superimposed to a color mosaic of a portion of Planum Australe. The study area is highlighted using a THEMIS IR image mosaic. Subsurface echo power is color coded and deep blue corresponds to the strongest reflections, which are interpreted as being caused by the presence of water. (Image by USGS ASTROGEOLOGY SCIENCE CENTER/ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY/ESA/INAF/DAVIDE COERO BORGA)

The radar profile of the region studied resembles that of our own planet, with subglacial lakes underneath Greenland and Antarctica.  

The study needs to be further peer-reviewed and the results verified. Indeed, a Chinese mission to Mars is planning to do exactly that in about two years.

"I can't absolutely prove it's water, but I sure can't think of anything else that looks like this thing does other than liquid water," said Richard Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, unaffiliated with the study.

So… when do we all move to Mars? 

Asking for a friend. 

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

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Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.