Study Looks More Closely at Mars’ Underground Water Signals

NASA has given a clear indication that there are still huge lakes inside the Red Planet Mars. Fluid is still flowing in those underground lakes across a large part of the Red Planet’s south pole. Which is most likely to be water.

NASA also said that the temperature at the South Pole of Mars is so low that the liquid water in those huge lakes has frozen to ice. However, scientists have not yet been able to confirm whether the ice is also dry carbon dioxide. However, the water may remain in a liquid state if the volcanoes are still awake inside Mars.

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The research paper is published in the international scientific research journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Researchers say a radio signal from the European Space Agency’s (Mars) spacecraft Mars Express Orbiter has sent a message from those lakes on the Red Planet that there are still numerous large underground lakes filled with liquid currents on Mars’ south pole. According to that radio signal, the amount of water in the South Pole at the South Pole is much higher than previously thought.

A new research paper finds more radar signals suggesting the presence of subsurface ‘lakes,’ but many are in areas too cold for water to remain liquid.


In 2018, scientists working with data from European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter announced a wonderful discovery: Signals from a radar instrument reflected off the Red Planet’s south pole appeared to reveal a liquid water subsurface lake. Several more such reflections have been announced since then.

In a new research paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, two scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory(JPL) in Southern California describe finding dozens of similar radar reflections around the south pole after analyzing a broader set of Mars Express data, but many are in areas that should be too cold for water to remain liquid.

“We’re not certain whether these signals are liquid water or not, but they appear to be much more extensive than what the original paper found,” said Jeffrey Plaut of JPL, co-principal investigator of the orbiter’s MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding) instrument, which was built jointly by the Italian Space Agency and JPL. “Either liquid water is common beneath Mars’ south pole or these signals are indicative of something else.”

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Subsurface Lakes or Something Else?
The colored dots represent sites where bright radar reflections have been spotted by ESA’s Mars Express orbiter at Mars’ south polar cap. Credits: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Frozen Time Capsule

The radar signals originally To explain as liquid water were found in a region of Mars known as the South Polar Layered Deposits, named for the alternating layers of water ice, dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide), and dust that have settled there over millions of years.

These layers are thought to provide a record of how trends shifted over time on the axis of Mars, creating ice ages and warmer periods throughout our planet’s history. When Mars had a lower axial tilt, snowfall and layers of dust accumulated in the region and eventually formed the thick layered ice sheet found there today.

By beaming radio waves at the surface, scientists can peer below these icy layers, mapping them in detail. Radio waves lose energy when they pass through material in the subsurface; as they reflect back to the spacecraft, they usually have a weaker signal.

But in some cases, signals returning from this region’s subsurface were brighter than those at the surface. Some scientists have interpreted these signals to imply the presence of liquid water, which strongly reflects radio waves.

Plaut and Aditya Khuller, a doctoral student at Arizona State University who worked on the paper while interning at JPL, aren’t sure what the signals indicate.

The areas hypothesized to contain liquid water span about 6 to 12 miles (10 to 20 kilometers) in a relatively small region of the Martian south pole. Khuller and Plaut expanded the search for similar strong radio signals to 44,000 measurements spread across 15 years of MARSIS data over the entirety of the Martian south polar region.

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Mars Express in Orbit illustration: ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) Mars Express flies over the Red Planet in this illustration. Credits: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Unexpected ‘Lakes’ on Mars

The analysis revealed dozens of additional bright radar reflections over a far greater range of area and depth than ever before. In some places, they were less than a mile from the surface, where temperatures are estimated to be minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit (– 63 degrees Celsius) – so cold that water would be frozen, even if it contained salty minerals known as perchlorates, which can lower the freezing point of water.

Khuller noted a 2019 paper in which researchers calculated the heat needed to melt subsurface ice in this region, finding that only recent volcanism under the surface could explain the potential presence of liquid water under the south pole.

“They found that it would take double the estimated Martian geothermal heat flow to keep this water liquid,” Khuller said. “One possible way to get this amount of heat is through volcanism. However, we haven’t really seen any strong evidence for recent volcanism at the south pole, so it seems unlikely that volcanic activity would allow subsurface liquid water to be present throughout this region.”

What explains the bright reflections if they’re not liquid water? The authors can’t say for sure. But their paper does offer scientists a detailed map of the region that contains clues to the climate history of Mars, including the role of water in its various forms.

“Our mapping gets us a few steps closer to understanding both the extent and the cause of these puzzling radar reflections,” said Plaut.