Matteo Borri Explains: What the Underground Lake On Mars Really Tells Us About the Possibility of Life There

By Lisa Rein

This image taken from the NASA Internet site 28 April, 2000 shows the south polar cap of Mars as it appeared to the Mars Global Surveyor on April 17, 2000. Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.

We are going to jump right in to this story, since it has been out for a week and most people already think they are familiar with this story.

The mainstream press appears have missed most of the interesting implications of these recent findings.

So, I thought I’d head over to Robots Everywhere LLC to get some clarifications from Matteo Borri.

Matteo Borri is on the Advisory Board for the Swartz-Manning VR Destination (An Aaron Swartz Day Production) – and is the co-lead on the Aaron Swartz Day Solar Survival Project.

Lisa Rein: Hi Matteo! Let’s talk about the implications of the “lake” they just found on Mars. Does this mean there is life on Mars? Is that all we needed to do; find water?

Matteo Borri: No, finding water just means it is more likely. Water does not guarantee life. But it does mean that there is a small chance that something could be alive in there.

LR: Were the Italian scientists looking for “current life” rather than “past life?” Is that how they found it?

MB: No. They were just looking at what the rock under the polar ice looked like.

LR: Where exactly was the lake found?

MB: The lake was found in the South Pole of Mars. It’s very cold there. There is about 1.5 miles of ice above the lake. Either enough salts were dissolved by the ice to lower its freezing point, or some source of heat is underneath it, turning it into a liquid.

LR: Like an aquifer?

MB: No. More like a big pond or small lake, with a bunch of ice on top. We don’t know how old it is.

LR: They weren’t using any special kinds of instruments different from the ones NASA uses?

MB: Nope. Same kinds of instruments. It was just the luck of the draw.

It’s interesting because it tells us to look for actual living “life,” rather than just for traces of past “life.”

This sort of under-the-ice brine lake is similar to one found in Antarctica a few years back: and there were viable single-cell critters in it. So if Mars ever had pervasive life, like earth does now, some of it may have survived under there.

Photo: Astrophysics Professor Alan Duffy’s Twitter account.

LR: Could life have evolved to survive under there to begin with, rather than being frozen under there? Similar to the extremophiles we found living in the Ocean near volcanoes here on Earth? (Although these are surviving at extremely high temperatures – like 200 degrees Fahrenheit – as opposed to low ones, like on Mars.)

MB: Yes, but it would still need to get its energy from somewhere. And getting energy is harder in general on Mars, compared to Earth, because it only gets about 1/4 of the energy we get from the Sun, and it’s seismically dead so no volcanic vents.

LR: You mean from something other than light, right?

MB: Yes. Something other than light. So, something that uses something other than chlorophyll and sunlight. For that water to exist underground like that, you have to be getting some energy from somewhere. Light, heat, anything.

LR: We now know that such organisms exist here on earth right? How some fairly-recently discovered “Extremophiles” are organisms that don’t need sunlight. (Which, in turn tells us that there are energy sources other than sunlight.)

What do the extremophiles we know about here on Earth use as an energy source?

MB: Well, “extremophiles” simply means life that can exist in very harsh environment. One that would normally be too cold, too hot, or too dry for other life.

There are some simple life forms that exist near the volcanic vent (where the water goes up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit).

An underwater organism in a submarine volcano.

LR: And they are “in the dark,” right? No sunlight.

MB: Right. No Sunlight.

LR: So, how do they get their energy then?

MB: Using the temperature gradient between the volcanic vent and the surrounding environment.

LR: Wow. Could some kind of volcano-based temperature gradient system exist on Mars.

MB: Nope. Mars doesn’t have any active volcanoes or seismic activity. Zero. Although, there was a lot of it at some point, but way back when, like billions of years ago.

LR: So, the big mystery is what the hell is melting part of the ice into a big lake?

MB: Yes.

LR: What are the theories?

MB: Well, the most likely theory is that salts deposits were slowly eaten up by the ice, which lowered its freezing point. Once you get some liquid, it will spread out, making that particular reaction go faster.

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