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 SIDER Navy Blue Leather Boat Shoes Women's Size 6.5 MBOC Born Concepts Women's Wedge Clog Slip On Shoe Black Size 6.5 / 37 , Clarks Womens Burgandy/Deep Red Leather Loafer with Buckle size 9.5 M Slip OnSANUK BLACK DONNA HEMP CHILL SIDEWALK SURFER SHOES, WOMEN US 10/ ~ NWTAnne Klein Zilya Elastic Espadrille Flats 438, Metallic Tan/Tan, 9 USTalbots Casual Slip On Shoes Womens Size 7.5 M Navy Blue Canvas -6397 , fit flop -Shorty zip, black, with side zipper, size 9, womensCLASSIC BONE BALLY VANESSA WOVEN LEATHER LOAFERS US SIZE 10 MVaneli East Womans Flats Size 9.5 N Beige Woven SlingbacksAriat ATS Equipped Slip-on Burgundy/Red Leather Shoes Style Size 7 BU.S. Polo Assn. Mona Cross Strap Slip On Sneakers 010, Black Multi, 8.5 US , Vera Wang HOPE Women's Jewel Cluster Burgundy Suede Ballet Flats Shoe Size 6.5 M , Skechers Womens Fashion Sneaker Size 9 (1959)Womens Reebok Z Goddess Running Training shoes Size 8.5 US M44667Saucony Womens Trinity Mint/Grey Running Shoes Size 6 (359243) , New Balance Classic Traditional Size 6.5Saucony Echelon 5 Running Shoes Size 10 Pink Gray Shoes Mesh S10276-1 WomensWomen's VICTORIA Toile 107303 Noir Big Clearance Sale Athletic ShoesNWT! ADIDAS ORIGINALS RIVALRY HI CARGO LEGEND MULTICOLOR HIGH TOP WOMEN SNEAKERAdidas Equipment 10 Women's Running Sneakers , KEEN Coronado Women's Brown Leather Sneakers Shoes - US 8 , NEW Women's Saucony Zealot ISO Turquoise / Coral Running Sneakers (5, 5.5)NEW IN BOX New Balance 846 Women's US 5.5//WW846WB D Wide White/Blue , New Keen 1017147 Elsa Star White Women's Casual Shoes 6.5 USSkechers Women's Go Run 600-Obtain Sneaker , VANS Old Skool Drizzle/Sangria Gray/Wine Suede Skate Women's Size 5 , Ladies Nike Lunar FORCE 1 Sky Hi (654849 601) Jacquard Used Size 7A332 Nike Womens Free TR 7 Training Shoes 904651-101 Size 10.5 NEWNEW LA CORDE BLANCHE ESPADRILLES MADE IN SPAIN SIZE 36 EU / 5.5 USNew Skechers 14958 NVW You Rise Navy Blue / White Women's Slip On Shoes 6 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."