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.CALZATURE IMPICCI Italy Brown Leather Shoes, Stacked Heel, Buckles, sz 38-US 7.5 , NEW! Cole Haan-Brown Loafers- Size 7.5AA- Comfortable and Cute! , Spicy Brand SHOES LOAFER BALLET FLATS Sz 7 , Fergie Womens Lana Black Suede Pointy-Toe Flats Shoes 8.5 Medium (B,M) BHFO 2624 , Women's Aldo Black Ballet Flat Mary Jane Snap Strap Slip On Shoes Size 39 , MERRELL Women's Brown Tetra Sprite Saddle Slip-On Mary Jane Shoe Size 8 , Bernardo Ballet Flats Size 6.5 M Taupe Leather Womens Slip On ShoesBreckelles Celia-22 New Women Leatherette Chain Ballet Flat Loafer , CLARKS Women's Leisa Sadie Mule Black Leather 10 M USKlogs Myra Womens Leather Display Model Shoes Black Troy 10 M , Cole Haan Womens Estellesam Closed Toe Ballet Flats, Grey, Size 6.0 , **Easy Street Giver Women's Black Slip on-Women's size 6M Black , New Directions Womens Bella Closed Toe Slide FlatsTods Black Leather Loafers Size 38.5 US 8.5 , NIKE FLEX 2014 RUN - RUNNING SHOES - TEAL GREEN ( SIZE 7 ) WOMEN`S , New DC Shoes Womens Evan Pink Skateboarding Shoes Size 5.5JACKSHIBO Mens Winter Snow Ankle Boots Slippers Casual Warm Outdoor Cozy ShoesNike Air Max 360 Women's Shoes Vivid Grape 2011 Release 429890-650 Size 8Bzees Cloud Technology White Ruby Sporty Slip-on Skimmer Shoe 8 SaleADIDAS Womens Element Refine Tricot Running Shoes Sneakers Size 6.5Reebok Womens Bd4657 WhisperGrey/LilacAsh/White Running Shoes Size 10 (420416) , Women's Ladies Savannah Flat Shoes F80053 Modern Design FlatsRyka Women's Impulse Walking Shoe - Choose SZ/ColorSkechers Performance Women's Go Run 400 Running Shoe 6.5 Black/White , NEW light pink sneakers Lacoste shoes tamora Leather high Tops Size 5.5 or 7 , Asics Womens GEL Cumulus 19 Sz 6 White Black Running Shoes T7B8N 0190 , WOMENS SKECHERS GO WALK 3 NAVY WALKING SHOES W/ STRIPES SN13989 SIZE 7.5 (392) , Nike 677136 Womens Orive NM Low Top Running Athletic Training Shoes SneakersAETREX Z581 Zoom Runner White Blue Orthotic Sneakers Women's 7.5 Medium , Women Real Leather Fashion Sneakers Sport Sandals Platform Wedge High Heel Boots
"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."