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.Sperry Top Siders Shoes Navy Blue Size Womens 5 1/2Munro American Womens 8M Beige Slingback Sandals Patent Leather $189Womens Vans Beige Oxfords Skimmer Boat Shoes Sz 7 SC8 , Sam Edelman Felicia Bronze Shimmer Leopard Flats Sz. 8 , Sperry Topsiders Ivyfish Womens 7.5M 3-Eye Brush Boat Shoes Taupe Leather G13 , Munro American Jolie Womens Black Suede Mesh Fabric Walking Shoes Size 8.5N R80Klogs Vera Womens Clog Shoes Display Model Leather Camel Driftwood 8M , Women's KEEN Brown Leather Slip-Ons (Size: 9.5 M) , LADIES E -SPIRIT FREEDOM COMFORT SHOE SIZE 7 NAVY STRIPESaucony Women's Cohesion 8 Running Walking Trail Shoes Size 10 S15218-12 , Women's Real Leather Stylish Pointy Toe Loafer Leisure Flat Shoes Bow Sz Ths01 , Stuart Weitzman - RED Suede loafers w/ jeweled front detail - Size 6 / SpainConverse Chuck Taylor II All Star W/Lunarlon UNISEX SHOE (Mens 8.5 Wo's 10.5)Nike Air Force 1 Mid Womens 5.5 Pink White , WOMEN Nike Vandal Low WHITE SPORT RED AND BLACK SIZE 8 EUC , Fashion White Tennis Breathable Mesh Sneakers Running Shoes for Women US Size 10DOLCE VITA WOMENS BLACK LEATHER/SUEDE STACKED HEEL PEEP TOE PUMPS SZ 9 , $110 ADIDAS VISTA CLIMAPROOF GREY/BLACK HIKING SHOES US 9M , Womens Summer Hollow Out Hidden Wedge Creepers Athletic Platform Sports ShoesOn Cloud Womens Cloudcruiser Gray Running Shoes Size 6.5 (367107) , NEW Balance Cross Trainer Shoes, Size 9 Medium, Silver & Orange, Retail $84 , Womens Saucony Cohesion 10 Gray Running Shoes Size 9.5W (C809)Merrell All Out Charge Womens Color: Surf The Web Size: 6.5M ; J36882 RETURNED!Vans SK8-Hi Slim VN0A32R2MQV Green Canvas Suede Skateboarding Shoes (B, M) Women , adidas Originals Women's Questar Tnd W Running Shoe, Blue, Size 9.5ADIDAS ORIGINALS WOMEN'S GAZELLE PINK/WHT ATHLETIC SNEAKERS BB5174 SIZE: 5.5PUMA SUEDE DAYBREAK PURPLE WHITE CASUAL WOMENS WMNS SZ 6-11 348036-02 , Women's Reef Rover Low Shoes - Black/Charcoal - Sizes 6, 7, 8 , J Slides 8 Pink Black Tan White Woven Slip On Sneakers , NEW BALANCE WT610LY5 TRAIL RUNNING PURPLE/YELLOW WOMENS SHOE SIZE 7 D US
"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."