/ Modified oct 23, 2018 9:34 a.m.

Mars Water Could Support Oxygen-Breathing Microbes

Simple, multicellular life, such as sponges, could survive in briny waters near the surface of the planet.

Mars detail Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, by the Viking Orbiter. The Valles Marineris canyon system is visible.
NASA, JPL-Caltech

A new study in the journal "Nature Geoscience" reports that briny waters near the surface of Mars could support oxygen-breathing microbes and even simple multicellular life, such as sponges.

The results could also explain how oxidized rocks found by Mars rovers might have formed under current conditions.

"Our work is really a first step that's kind of dogma-shifting in the way that it's saying, 'Wow, suddenly oxygen is something really important in modern-day Mars," said lead author Vlada Stamenković of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Michael Mischna, of Harvard University, and Lewis Ward and Woodward Fischer, of the California Institute of Technology, also contributed to the work.

windjana VIEW LARGER NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana." These manganese-oxide minerals usually require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form, but the new study shows how they could form under current Mars conditions.

No one knows if Mars currently hosts life or ever did, but such studies help set boundaries on what is possible. Previous research suggested microbes that don't need oxygen could survive on the Red Planet, while oxygen-breathing life would suffocate in the paltry O2 provided by sunlight breaking down carbon dioxide in Mars's thin atmosphere.

But simple life needs very little dissolved oxygen in its liquid environment to survive, and the team's models showed that enough O2 was available, and could make it into the brines, to do the job, particularly in Mars's polar regions.

Although Mars is generally quite cold, brines might yet remain liquid if their dissolved contents give them lower freezing points, akin to how brackish water on Earth freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water.

Now, it's a question of finding the brines.

gale crater mars NASA's Curiosity rover team has previously confirmed that Mars once held lakes, including this area dipping towards the base of Mount Sharp.

"Brines are likely to be found in the Martian near-surface but we haven't had really yet the right instruments, I think, to really answer those questions," said Stamenković.

He and his colleagues at JPL are now developing some of those tools in a project they call TH2OR, for "Transmissive H2O Reconnaissance."

The project's Scandinavian name is also a nod to the 1975 Mars Viking landers, the last probes that tried to detect life in Martian soil using onboard biological experiments.

Arizona Science Desk
This story is from the Arizona Science Desk, a collaborative of the state's public radio stations, including NPR 89.1. Read more from the Arizona Science Desk.
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