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.$50 R2 FOOTWEAR LILYANA White Multi Fabric Designer Comfort Ballet Flats 6 , Womens Easy street Super Flex Brown Promise Brown Mules Size 10 MCHAUSSURE SANDALE JB MARTIN CUIR TAILLE 36 ESCARPIN SHOES/ZAPATO/SCARPE BE , Ariat Women's Size 7B Brown Leather Sport Mules Slides Shoes #G02 , Eastland Womens Shoes Size 6.5 Medium Mary Jane Black Leather Loafers Heels , Catchfly Casual Shoes Womens Canvas Rose Khaki Serape 1665506S5Beira Rio Geneva Womens Cushioned Active Casual Shoes Made In BrazilWomen's Cole Haan 7 B Brown Leopard Patent Penny Loafers A036SANUK CERISE PINK SHORTY DOTS SIDEWALK SURFER SHOES, SIZE US 8/ ~NWTSkechers Womens Bobs B-Loved Round Toe Loafers Black Size 8.0 NVEG , Minnetonka Women's Gabi Slip On Shoes Round Toe, Grey, Size 6.5 p1KN , Vera Wang Lavender Ballet Flats With Rhinestones 7 MAnn Taylor Womens Flats Shoes Sz 6.5 M Lizard Print Camel Silver Cap Toe & HeelSaks Fifth Avenue Womens US 11 M Leather Ballet Italy BLACK Flats HANDCRAFTED , CLARKS Classic Pump Sz 7M Black Leather Slip On Comfort Shoes , Rachel Zoe Damon Cobalt Royal Blue / Red Suede Leather Studded Zip Flats 7.5 8 9 , Clarks Cloudstepper Caddell Yale Black Mary Jane Style Wedge Heel Shoe Sz 8 , New Saucony Mens S29026 Red Running Shoes Size 8.5Bogs Waterproof Shoe, Ladies Size 7 Medium , Skechers 22741 Air Cooled Memory Foam White Sneakers Us Size 9.5 , Women's Nike REVOLUTION3 Shoes -StylePink Orange Size 8.5 US RunniKeds Size 9.5 Blue Sneakers New Womens Shoes , Skechers Silver With Rhinestones Go Glam Mary Jane Shoe 21142 Womens Size 7Women's Ahnu Sugarpine Bright Plum Shoes Consumers First Athletic ShoesKeds Women's Craze Sneaker, Black, 7.5 M US , Crocs Lite Ride Slip On Relaxed Fit Women Plimsolls Shoes in Black & Grey 205103Womens Nike Lunarconverge 852469-002 Anthracite/Hot Pinch Brand New Size 8 , $110 Nike Women Air Force 1 '07 Pinnacle Dark Citron White (AA3968-301) SZ 7.5Propet Leila - Rejuve - Women's Rejuve Ath Denim/Lt. Blue - 7 Narrow , Vintage 1980s Soda Platform Original Retro Women's Shoes ,
"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."