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.

LR: Anything other theories, however remote?

MB: Well, another possibility is that there is some kind of radioactive material under the ice, melting it and creating that lake.

LR: Hmmm. What makes us think that there could be radioactive material there? And, what kind of radioactive material?

MB: I mean uranium ore, for example. If we are that lucky. It’s interesting: here on Earth, we have even found bacteria and fungi that can use radiation in the same way plants use sunlight. That is, to use the pigment melanin to convert gamma radiation into chemical energy for growth.

LR: Wow, interesting. Please, do keep explaining.

MB: Well, a variant of melanin can absorb and process gamma rays in the way that chlorophyll can process visible and infrared light.

LR: And this is something going on here on Earth, that we can measure happening, with our instruments, and yet, we don’t really understand how it works?

MB: Yes.

LR: Wait.Where are these radioactive eating bacteria located?

MB: In the Ukraine.

LR: Above ground in the Ukraine? Not underwater somewhere?

MB: No but it is a fair comparison, because it is very much is an extremophile that thrives in dangerous levels of radiation.

LR: Are you talking about something existing in the Ukraine after Chernobyl or something?

MB: Yes.

LR: Can you get a sample of this stuff so you can try to make a laser that detects it!? (Like your other lasers?) (For reference, see three previous articles: Matteo’s Inventions, Using Lasers to detect Life on Mars, What Finding Methane on Mars Really Means)

MB: Ha! Sure, I’d love to get some of this radioactive, mutated melanin, so I could see if I could get a laser to detect it easily; but the reality is that it would require shipping radioactive fungi to my house to do so!

LR: Whoa. So that’s what we’re talking about here? Literally radioactive fungi that uses radiation as a food source?

MB: Yes. Unfortunately for the fungi, you can’t be around that much radioactivity without picking up some. 500 times background levels = won’t kill you, but will give you melanoma in 5 years. It’s just not an option.

LR: What is your gut feeling at this point? Do you think there is “current life” on Mars?

MB: Unfortunately, I feel it is still quite doubtful. The NASA folks are reluctant to jump for joy quite yet. Is it really, really cool? Yes. Does it mean there’s a better chance than we thought? Yes.

But it’s still a very harsh environment; perhaps too harsh for anything to survive in. It took Earth 80% of its history for simple life to finally develop. Mars is smaller, and gets less energy from the sun, so little lakes like this probably don’t come about very often.

LR: How did they detect it anyway?

MB: With ground-penetrating radar.

Photo: Astrophysics Professor Alan Duffy’s Twitter account.

LR: Would we have to drill down and get an actual sample to know anything for sure?

MB: Yes.

LR: So we know from the radar that there is salt in the water? But we can’t tell how much. For instance, whether it’s livable, like our ocean. Or more like salt-peter, which nothing can live in?

MB: We don’t know what kind of salt it is – we do know that there is liquid water because of how radio reflective it is. It could be table salt, salt peter, or more like baking soda. Or, even a mix. If the brine wasn’t in the water, it would be frozen.) Brine freezes at lower temperatures.)

LR: What’s another possibility?

MB: That the water isn’t that salty, but there is some heat source underneath; which could only be radioactive material deposits, since there’s no seismic activity on Mars.

LR: What kind of radioactive source?

MB: Particularly dense uranium deposits could heat up the surrounding terrain.

LR: Uranium!

MB: If we were that lucky, it would certainly make colonization easier.

LR: So it would be located a few miles under the surface?

MB: Yes. (See article re: a natural nuclear fission reactor.)

LR: And we just didn’t detect it before, because it was so far underneath the surface?

MB: Yes. The water and ice are in the way.

LR: Why would it be so lucky to find something like this on Mars?

MB: Because this kind of thing has only been found a dozen times here on earth. So, it would be quite a stroke of luck for one to be located underneath an ice cap where it can enable water to exist.

LR: Any other possible theories?

MB: It could be that a particular type of brine lowers the freezing point significantly. Right now, we really don’t have the instruments available to check. We’d need a geiger counter, and a damn good one to boot.

LR: So currently, there’s no way to drill down for a sample. You can’t send one of the rovers over there?

MB: Not with one of the current rovers, no. They are nowhere near it.

Perhaps the next rover that goes up can go there, though. Although it would need a giant drill!

LR: Oh, so this discovery could affect where the next rover is sent?

MB: Yes. It’s at the south pole though. It’s very cold there, and harder to get solar panels to work. This means that any rover going there would have to be nuclear powered. So, it would make a lot of geiger counter noise, and you’d get less clean readings.

LR: The rover itself would be giving off radiation signals that could confuse the instruments that were trying to detect the radiation signals (from uranium, or some other radioactive source).

The NASA Mars Rover takes a selfie. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

MB: Yes.

LR: What can they do then? What’s the solution? Is there some way to tell the radiation coming from the rover itself from the radiation under the surface of the planet?

MB: Not currently. You can put the geiger counter inside a lead tube and just aim it carefully, but that makes them heavier. There are always tradeoffs in engineering, but that’s the fun part – figuring out the best mix between efficiency, ruggedness, and budget! (In this case, the tradeoff is using a nuclear reactor to power a Mars Rover, but the “tradeoff” is that the reactor itself gives off radiation that shows up on the same geiger counters that you are using to detect the uranium or other radioactive substance below the surface.)

LR: So there would need to be an updated version of the Curiosity Rover that is equipped with a mechanism for drilling down into the surface – all the way to where the lake is.

MB: Yes. Currently, the Curiosity Rover’s drill only goes down about a foot.

LR: How far down is the lake?

MB: About 1.5 miles under the ice. Around 20 km across (12 miles). But only 1 meter thick (3 feet deep). You would need a dedicated drilling rig. Another option is using a radio thermal generator tethered to a cable, to melt the ice and go right through, but it would contaminate the samples just by doing that.

MB: So remember, we are either looking at very thick brine OR regular water that happens to sit above some radioactive minerals.

LR: Can’t it be both? Brine water that gets its energy from radioactive uranium?

MB: It could be both, but that would be very unlikely.

LR: Why?

MB: That would be two unusual things right in the same spot – which is even less likely than either unusual thing happening on its own.

LR: Have those things (brine water, heated by a uranium deposit) ever come together on earth?

MB: Not that we know of anyway.

LR: Could they possibly ever though? Although very statistically unlikely?

MB: Yes. It’s a whole planet, and it’s been there 5 billion years; the same amount as Earth. Finding liquid water does increase of life existing right now as opposed to life having existed in Mars’ far past.

While Mars is not 100% seismically dead, it might as well be. There is a quake every million years or so; we think.

LR: Why do “we” think that? Is there some kind of tectonic evidence of that?

MB: Yes.

LR: I understand the thinking that there was one 1 million years ago. (because there is geologic evidence, right?) But under the circumstances, with no current activity, why on earth would there be one million years from now?

MB: Because Mars’ core is not yet solid, it is less active, and earthquakes will be very rare.

LR: So, can I assume then that Earth’s core is also not solid, since we get earthquakes here? And that Mars’ center is more solid than ours, so they get less “Marsquakes?”

MB: Exactly.


1. Radiotrophic Fungus (Wikipedia)

2. Ionizing Radiation Changes the Electronic Properties of Melanin and Enhances the Growth of Melanized Fungi, PLOS Journal, Ekaterina Dadachova, Ruth A. Bryan, Xianchun Huang, Tiffany Moadel, Andrew D. Schweitzer, Philip Aisen, Joshua D. Nosanchuk, Arturo Casadevall

3. Extremophiles (Wikipedia)

4. Italian researchers discover huge liquid water lake on Mars

5. Photo from Alan Duffy’s Verified account @astroduff A/Professor in Astrophysics at The University of Technology – @Swinburne and Lead Scientist of Australia’s Science Channel – @RiAus

6. Natural Nuclear Fission Reactor (Wikipedia)

7. Microorganisms inhabiting Submarine Volcanoes, GNS Science

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