Mars: Mounting evidence for subglacial lakes, but could they really host life?

There seems to be a network of underground bodies of liquid water at Mars’ south pole.
There seems to be a network of underground bodies of liquid water at Mars’ south pole. (Image credit: NASA/JPL/Main Space Science Systems)

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences, The Open University

Venus may harbour life some 50km above its surface, we learned a couple of weeks ago. Now a new paper, published in Nature Astronomy, reveals that the best place for life on Mars might be more than a kilometre below its surface, where an entire network of subglacial lakes has been discovered.

Mars was not always so cold and dry as it is now. There are abundant signs that water flowed across its surface in the distant past, but today you’d struggle to find even any crevices that you could call moist.

There is nevertheless plenty of water on Mars today, but it’s virtually all frozen, so not much use for life. Even in places where the noon-time temperature creeps above freezing, surface signs of liquid water are frustratingly rare. This is because the atmospheric pressure on Mars is too slight to confine water in its liquid state, so ice usually turns directly into vapour when heated.

Lakes beneath ice

It is beginning to look as if the most favourable place for liquid water on Mars is beneath its vast south polar ice cap. On Earth, such lakes began to be discovered in Antarctica in the 1970s, where nearly 400 are now known. Most of these have been found by “radio echo sounding” (essentially radar), in which equipment on a survey aircraft emits radio pulses.

Part of the signal reflects back from the ice surface, but some is reflected from further below – especially strongly where there is a boundary between ice and underlying liquid water. Antarctica’s largest subglacial lake is Lake Vostok – which is 240km long, 50km wide and hundreds of metres deep – located 4km below the surface.

Radar satellite image revealing Lake Vostok below the Antarctic ice. The area shown is about 300km across.

Radar satellite image revealing Lake Vostok below the Antarctic ice. The area shown is about 300km across. (Image credit: NASA)

Indications of similar lakes below the southern polar ice cap of Mars were first suggested by radar reflections 1.5km below the ice surface in a region named Ultimi Scopuli. These were detected between May 2012 and December 2015 by MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding), an instrument carried by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express that has been orbiting the planet since 2003.

A 4km wide area in Ultimi Scopuli: strange ice texture gives no clue as to presence of liquid water 1.5km below.

A 4km wide area in Ultimi Scopuli: strange ice texture gives no clue as to presence of liquid water 1.5km below. (Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

The new study of MARSIS data using signal processing techniques that take account of both the intensity and the sharpness (“acuity”) of the reflections has demonstrated that the previously detected region does indeed mark the top of a liquid body. This is the Ultimi Scopuli subglacial lake, and there seem also to be smaller patches of liquid nearby in the 250km by 300km area covered by the survey. The authors suggest that the liquid bodies consist of hypersaline solutions, in which high concentrations of salts are dissolved in water.

They point out that salts of calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium are known to be ubiquitous in the martian soil, and that dissolved salts could help to explain how subglacial lakes on Mars can remain liquid despite the low temperature at the base of the ice cap. The weight of the overlying ice would supply the pressure necessary to keep the water in liquid state rather than turning to vapour.

Life in subglacial lakes?

Lake Vostok is touted as a possible habitat for life that has been isolated from the Earth’s surface for millions of years, and as an analogue for proposed environments habitable by microbes (and possibly more complex organisms) in the internal oceans of icy moons such as Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus.

Mars’s south polar ice cap as seen by the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on April 17, 2000.

Mars’s south polar ice cap as seen by the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on April 17, 2000. (Image credit: NASA)

Although hypersaline water would give microbes a place to live below Mars’ south polar cap, without an energy (food) source of some kind they could not survive. Chemical reactions between water and rock might release some energy but probably not enough; it would help if there was an occasional volcanic eruption, or at least hot spring, feeding into lake.

Read more: What on Earth could live in a salt water lake on Mars? An expert explains

We lack evidence of this on Mars, unlike on Europa and Enceladus. Although the new findings make Mars even more interesting than before, they haven’t advanced its ranking in the list of solar system bodies most likely to host life.

That said, the salty water could act as a preservation chamber – helping us find alien organisms that are now extinct but once came to Mars from other parts of the solar system.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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David Rothery
Professor of Planetary Geosciences, The Open University

David Rothery is a professor of Planetary Geosciences at the Open University in the U.K. In 2006 David was appointed UK lead scientist (now lead co-investigator) on MIXS (Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer), which is the only U.K. Principal Investigator instrument on BepiColombo, the European Space Agency mission to Mercury. David also chairs the European Space Agency's Mercury Surface and Composition Working Group. David's research interests centre on volcanology and geoscience in general on other planets. 

  • TorbjornLarsson
    The water should be really salty and cold at about - 50 deg C or so. There is no life that replicates below - 20 degC ].
  • Chem721
    One of the biggest problems for existing life in sub-surface Martian lakes is salinity. Hypersaline water is likely detrimental to the origin and continuation of life since high levels of these salts will negatively impact many organic reactions (and interactions) critical to abiogenesis, and in any living organisms which might arise. The primary elements of these salts are Na+, K+, Mg++, Ca++ and Cl-. At low concentrations, as seen in seawater on earth. they are useful in various activities, such as enhancing reactions, and creating membrane potentials which drive metabolites into cells, etc. But at higher concentrations, they would begin to interfere, and even degrade chemicals and structures, rendering such an environment unsuitable for life.

    On earth, very few life forms can survive in hypersaline waters. Brine shrimp are a classic example. But the vast majority of life on earth would perish in hypersaline conditions. Which is why salts are used as preservatives, such as salted pork and salted fish. And there are plenty of salts in the soils of earth, and plenty of "fresh water" lakes. Clearly the presence of salts in the soil does not mean that all lakes will be hypersaline. It would depend a lot on hydrology and the surrounding soils. It seems unlikely there would be lakes with low salt content on Mars without some means of moderating excessive salt content. This is prevented on earth by an active hydrology, where rain can continuously maintain lower levels of salt in lakes and rivers, for example. Such mechanisms on Mars would appear required to allow for lower levels of salts in sub-surface waters, and allow life to arise and survive. Of course an energy source is an entirely different issue.