Surprising Discovery of Dozens of Underground “Lakes” on Mars Leaves Scientists Puzzled

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      In a new paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, two scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory 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 widespread 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.”

      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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