PARIS - Salty water just below the surface of Mars could hold enough oxygen to support the kind of microbial life that emerged and flourished on Earth billions of years ago, researchers reported Monday (Oct 22).
In some locations, the amount of oxygen available could even keep alive a primitive, multicellular animal such as a sponge, they reported in the journal Nature Geosciences.
"We discovered that brines" - water with high concentrations of salt - "on Mars can contain enough oxygen for microbes to breathe," said lead author Vlada Stamenkovic, a theoretical physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
"This fully revolutionises our understanding of the potential for life on Mars, today and in the past," he told AFP.
Up to now, it had been assumed that the trace amounts of oxygen on Mars were insufficient to sustain even microbial life.
"We never thought that oxygen could play a role for life on Mars due to its rarity in the atmosphere, about 0.14 per cent," Stamenkovic said.
By comparison, the life-giving gas makes up 21 per cent of the air we breathe.
On Earth, aerobic - that is, oxygen breathing - life forms evolved together with photosynthesis, which converts CO2 into O2. The gas played a critical role in the emergence of complex life, notable after the so-called Great Oxygenation Event some 2.35 billion years ago.
But our planet also harbours microbes - at the bottom of the ocean, in boiling hot springs - that subsist in environments deprived of oxygen.
"That's why - whenever we thought of life on Mars - we studied the potential for anaerobic life," Stamenkovic.
LIFE ON MARS?
The new study began with the discovery by Nasa's Curiosity Mars rover of manganese oxides, which are chemical compounds that can only be produced with a lot of oxygen.
Curiosity, along with Mars orbiters, also established the presence of brine deposits, with notable variations in the elements they contained.
A high salt content allows for water to remain liquid - a necessary condition for oxygen to be dissolved - at much lower temperatures, making brines a happy place for microbes.
Depending on the region, season and time of day, temperatures on the Red Planet can vary between minus 195 and 20 deg C.
The researchers devised a first model to describe how oxygen dissolves in salty water at temperatures below freezing.
A second model estimated climate changes on Mars over the last 20 million years, and over the next 10 million years.
Taken together, the calculations showed which regions on the Red Planet are most likely to produce brine-based oxygen, data that could help determine the placement of future probes.
"Oxygen concentrations (on Mars) are orders of magnitude" - several hundred times - "greater than needed by aerobic, or oxygen-breathing - microbes," the study concluded.Soft Style Womens Leather Brown Flats 9.5M , Clarks Collection 9M Leisa Deina Leather Slip On Mules Clogs BrownEUC! MERRELL WOMENS SLIP ON PLAZA BANDEAU SUEDE SHOES BROWN 7M , Pinky Womens Mary Jeans Double-strap Flats , Fruma! By Paprika Women's Classic Apron Toe Loafer Flats Tan Leopard Faux Suede , Ecco Brown Leather Slip-On Oxford Style Shoes US Women's 6.5 Fast Shipping , Eastland Amore Women's Brown Leather Loafers Slip On Clogs Casual Shoes Size 10MWorx by Red Wing Clogs Mint Size 8.5 M WomenEasy Street Women's Dolores Flat, Brown Patent Crocodile, 5 M US , Bandolino Whimper Women's Black Leather Shoes Flats 9M , Women's Calvin Klein Artria Black Leather Synthetic Casual Shoes Size 8 M NEW! , Cole Haan Block Heel Loafer Womens Size 8 B Beige Taupe Suede Slip On Shoe ItalyNEW Skechers BOBS Women's Taupe or Black Memory Foam Espadrille Wedge Shoes NWOBLouise et Cie Black Leather Dugan Flats Mules Womens Size US 8.5M , New Sam Edelman Womens Carmela Pink Walking, Hiking, Trail Shoes Size 7 , PW Minor Canfield Women Size 5M Diabetic Walking Shoes Sneakers x13Saucony S15259-15 Excursion TR 9 Athletic Running Black Shoes Womens US 9 Wide , ASICS Amplica - White - Womens , ECCO Gray Slip-on Mary Jane Casual Walking Sneaker Women's Size: 39 / 8-8.5 , Women's Sperry Stride Rite Black Elise Comfortable Feel FlatsWomen's nude flats sz 6 Economical And Practical Flats , Nike AIR MAX ADVANTAGE Wmns Black/white 908991 001 Running Training Shoes SZ 10 , Skechers Sport Women's Breathe Easy Fortune Fashion SneakerGrey Knit8 M USZumba Street Bold Shoes - Black A1F00041 - 7US , ASICS Womens S755n Black/Silver/White Walking Shoes Size 9 (32363) , New Balance Women's 627 Industrial Pink Gray Steel Toe Training Work ShoesWMNS NIKE AIR MAX THEA 599409 413 , Women's Skechers Flex Appeal 2.0-HIGH CARD 12774 Black/White Brand New in Box , New Women's Skechers GOtrain - Hype Training Shoes (14830) Size 7.5 (L28) , Custom Design Women Shape Up Toning Shoes Fitness Walking Wedge Sneakers US 4-10 ,
"Our results do not imply that there is life on Mars," Stamenkovic cautioned. "But they show that the Martian habitability is affected by the potential of dissolved oxygen."