surface of Mars
surface of MarsReuters

Can life exist on Mars? It seems a little more likely after scientists discovered a large body of liquid water on the Red Planet for the first time, the Italian Space Agency announced Wednesday.

The discovery was made by the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument, or MARSIS, a radar system aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter.

MARSIS detected an underground lake about 12.4 miles wide a mile beneath the surface of the planet's south pole. The finding represents the most significant discovery of liquid water on Mars to date.

Scientists have long known that liquid water used to flow on the surface of Mars, thanks to small spherical mineral deposits discovered by the Mars Rover in 2004. The planets poles are also covered in thick sheets of ice.

"This is potentially a really big deal," said planetary scientist Roberto Orosei of the National Institute of Astrophysics in Bologna, Italy, who led the research team which wrote the report. “It’s another type of habitat in which life could be living on Mars today.”

MARSIS works by sending radar signals underground and recording the reflected signal. The team examined the data gathered between 2012 and 2015. and found that an underground area reflected a significantly brighter signal than the surrounding ice and rock, potentially signifying the presence of liquid water,

“On Earth, nobody would have been surprised to conclude that this was water,” Orosei said. “But to demonstrate the same on Mars was much more complicated.”

The scientists believe that the water contains a heavy quantity of salt, which allows it to remain in its liquid form despite being at the frigid temperature of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

The researchers believe that the discovery, if it is confirmed, may not be unique, and that there may be many other smaller bodies of liquid water on Mars.

"The large size required for a meltwater patch to be detectable by MARSIS (several kilometers in diameter and several tens of centimeters in thickness) limit the possibility of identifying small bodies of liquid water or the existence of any hydraulic connection between them. Because of this, there is no reason to conclude that the presence of subsurface water on Mars is limited to a single location," the paper states.