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Life in the balance: Mars has right ingredients for microbial life

New data suggests that Mars did, and perhaps still does, have the conditions to support life.

The Red Planet
Mars appears as a red-orange globe with darker blotches and white icecaps visible on both of its poles.
Mars appears as a red-orange globe with darker blotches and white icecaps visible on both of its poles.

It’s been an exciting few months for those interesting in Mars, the planet in the Solar System that is closest to Earth in its topography and perhaps was similar to Earth in other ways, such as once supporting life.

The main headlines have been with the small rotorcraft that was pictured hovering above Jezero Crater. This success with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter demonstrated that powered, controlled flight on another planet is possible.

It was also of interest that Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous. There was no human operator pressing buttons from Houston. The craft was piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms.

As to whether Mars once had life (or perhaps still does somewhere beneath the surface) rests with Mars once (or perhaps still does) have sufficient water. In relation to the water possibility, a new study has put to use a computer model of Mars. The output suggests Mars once contained rivers and lakes.

In particular, the data suggests Mars could have had a thin layer of icy, high-altitude clouds that caused a greenhouse effect. Since clouds that tend to warm planets more easily, this makes the prospects for Mars containing lakes and rivers all the more probable.

It is also hoped that the model will aid scientists in the ongoing search for other habitable worlds.

The study appears in the journal PNAS, with the research paper titled “Warm early Mars surface enabled by high-altitude water ice clouds.”

The cloud finding leads into something even more fascinating. A different study sets out why Mars has right ingredients for present-day microbial life beneath its surface.

This is based on analysis of the chemical composition of Martian meteorites that have ended up depositing fragments on Earth. The investigation has determined that the rocks, if in consistent contact with water, would produce the chemical energy needed to support microbial communities close to those that can exist in the unlit depths of the Earth. These are bacteria that are capable of ingesting dissolved hydrogen as fuel. The organisms are also able to use the oxygen preserved in the sulfates to “burn” the fuel.

Moreover, as these meteorites are representative of much of the Martian crust, the data indicates that a large proportion of the Mars subsurface could be habitable. This relates to other assumptions that groundwater could well exist on the Martian surface today. The only way to prove this would be by drilling into the surface.

The new findings appear in the journal Astrobiology, with the research contained in a paper called “Earth-like Habitable Environments in the Subsurface of Mars.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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