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21st December 2022

Was there life on Mars?

New data provides further evidence for liquid water on Mars. Maybe we aren’t alone in the Solar System after all?
Was there life on Mars?
Photo: Planet Volumes @Unsplash

From sci-fi to genuine science research, we have been trying to answer this question for decades. Recent findings from Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) brings us one step closer to finding out.

We know Mars is an incredibly cold planet whose climate is so extreme that there is no possibility of it hosting living organisms on its surface. Indeed, until recently, scientists thought that all water on Mars is in ice form, frozen solid up to the surface of the planet.

Now, however, researchers have discovered potential evidence of liquid water beneath the south polar ice caps (known as the Ultimi Scopuli region) – evidence that there was once life on Mars…

Liquid water on Mars?

MARSIS, a planet-orbiting laser altimeter, has collected data from the surface of Mars, showing the measurements of the Martian ice caps’ patterns. These are modelled using measurements of the varying height in the upper layer of ice.

Alongside computer-modelled predictions of the effects of water beneath ice caps (based on the Earth’s poles and the subglacial lakes beneath them), scientists from the SPRI have found that the topological patterns predicted to match the data from MARSIS.

In 2018, the European Space Agency found possible evidence of liquid water below the surface of these ice caps using their Mars Express satellite’s radar measurements. However, at the time there was a general global consensus that the measurements were actually an indication of other dry material and not water, and researchers moved on.

This new evidence from MARSIS contradicts that consensus and backs up the 2018 prediction that there actually is liquid water underneath the Ultimi Scopuli region.

Why does it matter?

For water to remain liquid on Mars, there must be some geothermal activity. This means there must be some residual warmth on the red planet that is conducted through the ice, rather than being lost immediately at the bedrock surface.

Flowing ice creates friction which concentrates at the base of the ice cap and results in smooth flat areas on the upper surface of the ice caps. Similar flat stretches on the ice caps of Mars have been discovered and matched by both radar measurements and computer modelling.

For this water to be liquid at these cold temperatures, researchers acknowledged in the recent SPRI-led report that this water must be incredibly saline (decreasing its freezing temperature), too saline for most known organisms to survive in. However, this may not have always been the case.  There is a possibility that at one point this water was less salty and Mars was warm enough to inhabit.

Perhaps we aren’t alone in the solar system after all?

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