While scientists may not have conclusive evidence of the presence of liquid water on Mars today, they do have ample proof of ice, suggesting that water in a liquid form likely existed on the red planet at some point in its past.
The latest images beamed back by the ESA-operated Mars Express orbiter, showing an ice-filled Korolev Crater, only adds to that growing pile of data that indicates there are ice bodies aplenty on the planet.
The ESA-released images are stunning composites of five separate strips of photos snapped by the orbiter’s High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) over the course of five orbits around the planet.
The 52-mile-across impact crater, filled almost to the brim with solid white ice, can be seen in all its Martian glory in the awe-inspiring images below.
It is named after Sergei Korolev, the Moscow-born lead rocket- engineer and spacecraft designer during the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the fifties and sixties
Regarded by many as the “father of practical astronautics,” the Soviet-era rocket man played a significant part in the development of Sputnik 1 and the R-7 Rocket, as well as launching Laika and the first human being into space.
So important was Korolev to the Soviet scheme of things that only a selected few knew his real name.
To protect him from possible assassination attempts by the United States during the cold war, he was known simply as Glavny Konstruktor – Russian for Chief Designer.
It wasn’t until after his death in 1966 that his full identity was made public and he was awarded due recognition for his immense contributions to the Soviet cause.
Coming back to the point, the ice is more than 1.2-mile-thick in the middle of the crater and stays frozen all through the Martian year (nearly 23 Earth months) – thanks to a phenomenon called “cold trap.”
As the Martian air flows over the rim and across the icy surface of the crater, it cools down and sinks, forming a protective layer of permanently cold air that insulates the ice from warmer influences.
According to ESA estimates, there’s about 528 cubic miles, or 2,200 cubic kilometers, of water ice inside the crater, which is roughly the same volume as Canada’s Great Bear Lake.
Part of the ESA-managed Mars Express mission, the Mars Express spacecraft was launched atop a Russian-built Soyuz-FG/Fregat rocket way back in June 2003.
The two-part Mars Express, consisting of the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander, entered Mars’ orbit on Christmas Day the same year.
The lander’s mission to perform exobiology and geochemistry research failed due to post-landing glitches.
The orbiter, however, continued on and has since been at it, doing everything from imaging and mapping the planet, to radar sounding its subsurface and performing a host of other studies – not to mention sending back gorgeous images we saw above.
As recently as earlier this year, researchers at the Italian Space Agency also discovered evidence of liquid water under the red planet – thanks again to the Mars Express orbiter.
Published in the journal Science in July, the study suggested the possible existence of a lake of liquid water beneath the red planet’s south polar ice cap.
The evidence, however, cannot be called conclusive by any stretch of the imagination until further research clears all doubts about the discovery.
The data was collected by an instrument called MARSIS (Mars Express Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) onboard the orbiter.
Probing the Planum Australe – the southern polar plain on Mars – between May 2012 and December 2015, MARSIS was able to compile radar profiles that were found to contain evidence of a body of liquid water trapped less than a mile below the ice-capped surface.
While the MARSIS data didn’t help in determining the depth of the subsurface water layer, the researchers do estimate it to be at least one meter thick.
The MARSIS modus operandi was to send out low-frequency radar signals to the surface and immediate subsurface of the Planum Australe region of the planet, thereby enabling the research team to study the signals that were bounced back to Mars Express.
Speaking about his team’s findings, Italian National Institute for Astrophysics professor and lead author of the research paper, Roberto Orosei, had said:
“This really qualifies this as a body of water. A lake, not some kind of meltwater filling some space between rock and ice, as happens in certain glaciers on Earth.”
The researchers said there was a strong possibility of more such water bodies lying hidden beneath the Martian surface, based on a somewhat weird logic that they haven’t found any evidence that suggests otherwise.
“There is no reason to conclude that the presence of subsurface water on Mars is limited to a single location,” they wrote.
Orsei was also upbeat about the possible presence of more such subsurface water reservoirs on the plain.
”This is just one small study area,” Orosei said in a statement at the time.
“It is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered,” he said.
For water to remain in liquid form in temperatures that researchers estimate is somewhere between -10 and -30 Celsius, the water is likely to be highly saline, which basically means it was, probably, never conducive to any kind of life form.
“It’s plausible that the water may be an extremely cold, concentrated brine, which would be pretty challenging for life,” Dr. Claire Cousins, an astrobiologist from the University of St Andrews, UK – was quoted by BBC as saying.