What scientists thought had been lakes of liquid water hiding below the southern polar ice cap of Mars might develop into… simply common previous rock.

New evaluation has discovered that the brightly shining radar sign interpreted as underground water on the pink planet might even have been produced by geological layering. It is not a foregone conclusion, but it surely does counsel that stronger proof is required earlier than we are able to decide with any certainty what’s lurking below there.

“Right here we reveal that related reflections might be generated because the pure results of skinny layer interference, with out invoking any liquid water or in any other case uncommon supplies,” write a crew of researchers led by astronomer Dan Lalich of Cornell College in a brand new paper.

“This outcome, mixed with different latest work, calls into query the probability of discovering liquid water beneath the south polar layered deposit (SPLD).”

The mysterious sign was first detected a number of years in the past, in radar information collected by the European House Company’s Mars Specific satellite tv for pc probe. There, buried beneath the Martian southern polar ice cap, scientists noticed a patch of unusually reflective materials.

Subsequent searches yielded extra brightly shining underground patches, suggesting that regardless of the first patch was, it undoubtedly wasn’t distinctive.

Much more excitingly, related shining patches had been discovered proper right here on Earth – additionally buried below the ice of the South Pole. These are the subglacial lakes, reminiscent of Lake Vostok, that make up a community of liquid reservoirs below the Antarctic ice.

This led scientists to the conclusion that there might be related liquid reservoirs on Mars. There’s only one catch: Mars is considered too chilly for liquid water, even pressurized below layers of ice, and with a freezing level lowered by the presence of salts.

So, what are the shiny patches? To research, Lalich and colleagues carried out simulations utilizing a layering of 4 supplies identified to happen on Mars.

Floor-penetrating radar works by bouncing radio waves at an object or floor. How lengthy it takes for these radio waves to be mirrored again, and the way strongly, reveals the properties of the supplies beneath the floor of a planet – however not essentially what these supplies are.

The researchers created simulated layers of water ice, carbon dioxide ice, basalt and ambiance in quite a lot of configurations and thicknesses, every with properties that mirror radar pulses in particular methods.

Then, they labored out what alerts these configurations would produce. They usually obtained one thing simply as vibrant because the Mars Specific observations: a layer of dusty water ice sandwiched between two layers of carbon dioxide ice.

“I used CO2 layers embedded inside the water ice as a result of we all know it already exists in giant portions close to the floor of the ice cap,” Lalich explains.

“In precept, although, I might have used rock layers and even notably dusty water ice and I might have gotten related outcomes. The purpose of this paper is actually that the composition of the basal layers is much less essential than the layer thicknesses and separations.”

This isn’t the one latest suggestion that the shimmery sign might have been generated by one thing that is not liquid water. A crew final 12 months discovered that frozen clays produce the identical stage of radar shine, and earlier this 12 months, one other crew proposed volcanic rock (which Mars has in abundance) as a supply.

With the addition of layers of rock and/or ice, that are extra according to what we learn about Mars, the water clarification appears to be receding farther from probability.

Which might be a disgrace, as a result of liquid water on Mars would have implications for its previous and perhaps even current habitability, in addition to future crewed missions to the pink planet.

However it’s additionally doable that we’ll by no means truly know for positive.

“Not one of the work we have carried out disproves the doable existence of liquid water down there,” Lalich says. “We simply assume the interference speculation is extra according to different observations. I am undecided something wanting a drill might show both facet of this debate definitively proper or improper.”

Which, given the depth of the patches, the gap to Mars, and the issue of transporting issues there (particularly heavy drilling equipment), just isn’t more likely to occur any time quickly.

The crew’s analysis has been revealed in Nature Astronomy.

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