Mars Could Have Enough Oxygen to Support Microbial Life, Say Scientists

A team of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory argues that brines just below the surface of Mars contains enough oxygen to support microbial forms of life. The theory is based on the discovery of manganese oxides, which cannot be produced without a lot of oxygen, by NASA’s Curiosity Mars orbiter. Brines found on the planet can contain enough oxygen to sustain microbes, said Vlada Stamenkovic, the lead author of a study published in journal Nature Geosciences yesterday. She added that the discovery revolutionizes our present understanding of the potential for life for life on Mars.

Till now, the assumption of the scientists working in the field was that the amount of oxygen on the planet was not sufficient to support even microbial life. They had dismissed the possibility of having oxygenated water, as Mars’s atmosphere is 160 times thinner than that of the earth, and consists mostly of carbon dioxide. As it contained only about 0.14 percent of the element, nobody thought that oxygen could play a life-sustaining role over there. Now, with the data collected by Curiosity Mars and other orbiters, this view is bound to change. Temperature on Mars varies between minus 195 to twenty degrees Celsius. Water remains liquid even under very low temperatures if it has a high salt content. And if the salty water is close to the surface of the there is a chance of the water absorbing oxygen from the planet’s atmosphere.

To study the possibility of this happening, the research team developed a chemical model that describes the process by which water absorbs water under very low temperatures. Using another model, they also studied the climatic changes on the planet during the past twenty million years. Based on these models the team found that at low elevations where the atmosphere is thickest, an unexpectedly high amount of oxygen could exist in water. They also noted that more possibilities have existed during the last five million year for oxygen to be soluble in water. The calculated concentrations of water-dissolved oxygen are several hundred times greater than what is needed by oxygen breathing microbes. Vlada Stamenkovic commented that though their study doesn’t prove that there is life on Mars, the possibility remains very high.

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