A new study has found oxygen-rich liquid may exist on Mars, which could offer support to microbial life.
The study reported in the October 22 edition of Nature Geoscience has reignited the possibility of life existing on Mars – something which until now had been dismissed by scientists due to the lack of aerobic respiration on the Red Planet.
Aerobic respiration requires oxygen and is necessary for life to exist on Earth, in the process, cells break down oxygen in order to produce energy to drive metabolism.
Previously, the low levels of atmospheric oxygen on Mars had led scientists to believe aerobic respiration was near impossible. However, this discovery has found Mars may be harbouring oxygen-rich liquid water below its surface, which makes aerobic respiration a possibility.
Speaking to Scientific American, Vlada Stamenkovic, the lead study author and a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said:
“Our work is calling for a complete revision for how we think about the potential for life on Mars, and the work oxygen can do, implying that if life ever existed on Mars it might have been breathing oxygen.
“We have the potential now to understand the current habitability.”
Stamenkovic’s study involved using a model of the climate found on Mars. The planet currently contains sub-surface water ice and liquid water in the form of brines, which contain high salt levels. The model used by Stamenkovic examines how oxygen dissolves in these brines.
The results, which come a few months after scientists found the first signs of a persistent body of water on Mars, established that there may be pools of salty liquid just below the surface of the planet which capture the small amount of oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere.
According to the study, these brines may contain concentrations of oxygen at a similar level to which were present on early Earth.
Don’t book a one-way ticket to Mars just yet, however, as the study has not examined the brines activity over time.
Brines may require saltier conditions to form at the equator, which would cause less oxygen to be absorbed, thus would eliminate the possibility of habitable conditions. However, if the brines are formed at the poles, the study reads, they could absorb enough oxygen to support life.
Currently, international law reads that life-hunting missions are off-limits for in-situ exploration where there is the possibility of life. The laws were created to avoid extinction or accidental contamination of alien life.
So if Stamenkovic’s study does ring true, it could cause issues with our ability to explore the planet.
Luckily, Stamenkovic is optimistic about the possibility of life and our ability to discover it.
“I think there’s a sweet spot where we can be curious and we can be explorers and not mess things up,” he said.
“We have to go for that.”