NEW YORK — A huge lake of salty water appears to be buried deep in Mars, raising the possibility of finding life on the red planet, scientists reported Wednesday.

The discovery, based on observations by a European spacecraft, generated excitement.

“If these researchers are right, this is the first time we’ve found evidence of a large water body on Mars,” said Cassie Stuurman, a geophysicist at the University of Texas who found signs of an Martian ice deposit in 2016.

Scott Hubbard, a professor of astronautics at Stanford University who served as NASA’s first Mars program director in 2000, called it “tremendously exciting.”

“Our mantra back then was ‘follow the water.’ That was the one phrase that captured everything,” Hubbard said. “So this discovery, if it stands, is just thrilling because it’s the culmination of that philosophy.”

The study, published in the journal Science, does not determine the reservoir’s depth.

To find the water, Italian researchers analyzed radar signals collected over three years by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft. Their results suggest that a 12-mile-wide reservoir lies below ice about a mile thick in an area near the planet’s south pole.

Mars is very cold, but the water might have been kept from freezing by dissolved salts. It’s the same as when you put salt on a road, said Kirsten Siebach, a planetary geologist at Rice University.

“This water would be extremely cold, right at the point where it’s about to freeze. And it would be salty. Those are not ideal conditions for life to form,” she said.

Still, she said, microbes on Earth can adapt to such environments.

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