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.COLE HAAN Womens Tan Leather Boat Loafer Shoes Size 7 1/2BCrocs Womens Stretch Sole Loafer Slip On Shoes, Pool/Light Grey, US 11Brown Multi nn Casual Lady Bowknot Fashion Womens Ballet Flats Shoes Size 6.5Naturalizer Women Shoes Wedge Sport Slide Loafer Sneaker Red White Leather Sz 11 , Women's Slip-on shoes Slippers Leather Cap Toe Flats Espadrilles Loafers Casual , KEEN Leather Sterling City MJ Mary Jane Women's 7 /37.5 Black Keen Cush 1007703Nina Klaire Metallic Womens Shoes Size 5.5 M Flats MSRP $79Cole Haan Woven Loafers Shoes Brown Leather Sz 8.5 M Womens 2E1MELISSA + THAIS LOSSO burgundy plush velvet coated jelly kawaii flats shoes 7 *Sprerry Top-Sider Women's Silver Luna With Bow Ballet Flats Size 6.5M , Divaz Drift Slip On Mary-Jane Style Woven Summer Ladies Womens Shoe UK3-7 , J - 41 Sideline Hiking Walking Shoes Womens Size 8 M Lime Green Blue Strappy , Stuart Weitzman Snake Embossed Black Leather Beaded Tassel Loafer Sz 8.5 AA38 / 7.5 US - MANAS Leather & Floral Wedge $215 Sandals Shoes w/ Box NEW 4427SC , Women's Merrell Encore Eclipse Smooth Bug Brown Shoes Walking Hiking 8.5 K9 , Hawkwell Woman's Classic Running Shoes White Hook and Loop Breathable SneakersMuk Luks Printed Slip On Slippers In Brown Mens Size 11 MSRP $40 , Lauren Ralph Lauren Janis Slip On Fashion Sneakers, Blue Railroad , Merrell Womens Waterpro Ultra Pro Vibram Water Shoes Sz 6.5 Strap Sandal , Vans tie dye pink blue canvas shoes sneakers, size 9 , DC Women's Magnolia TX Skate ShoeWomen's ADIDAS GREY SIZE 6 Reliable Quality Athletic Shoes , Women's Skechers Women's You - Reveal, Modern Design Athletic Shoes , Pearl Izumi Women's EM Road N2 Running Shoes, Wisteria/Rose Violet (7.5) , Propet Women TravelActiv W5102 - Light weight fashion walking sneaker shoes , New NIKE ZOOM STRIKE WOMEN Running SHOES AJ0188 016 Size 10NIKE WOMENS AIR FORCE 1 '07 MID SEASONAL Sz 6-8.5 ENAMEL GREEN 818596-300 , Nike Shox 442115-044 Qualify 2 Women Metallic Silver Athletic Running Shoes Sz 9Funtasma Women's Roman 10 , fashion Brand cool Sneakers Sport Lady Women's Beautiful High Top Canvas 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."