Mars’ toxic surface could force scientists to search for life underground
New research conducted by two Edinburgh University astrobiologists, Jennifer Wadsworth and Charles Cockell, suggests that compounds found in Martian soil are turned into potent bactericides when affected by the planet’s ultraviolet light. This effectively sterilizes the upper layers of the planet’s landscape.
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The Guardian reports that this discovery will have a huge impact on the search for extraterrestrial life on Mars, in that missions may have to dig far underground to find life forms that reside there or may have resided there in the past. In their research paper, Wadsworth and Cockell refer to the surface of Mars as hostile or “inimical to life.”
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Wadsworth’s research was driven by the initial discovery of oxidants known as perchlorates in Martian soil a few years ago, a man-made and naturally occurring chemical used in the production of rocket fuel. While many scientists suspected that these perchlorates could be toxic, in theory, alien bacteria could find a way to use these chemicals as an energy source. If bacteria could survive in perchlorate-rich brines, writes the Guardian, aliens could be living in the damp patches on Mars.
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However, when Wadsworth looked at what happened to a common soil bacterium when it was mixed with magnesium perchlorate and subjected it to ultraviolet rays similar to that of Mars, she found that the bugs were wiped out twice as fast when perchlorate was present.
“These properties suggest that the mere presence of liquid water seeps, thought to be good locations to search for life, does not imply environments fit for life,” Wadsworth and Cockell said in their research.
These findings indicate that the damp patches on the surface of Mars spotted from orbit may not be the most likely place to find alien microbes after all. In an interview, while Wadsworth doesn’t rule out life on Mars, she does have a few suggestions about how to proceed in searching for it.
“I can’t speak for life in the past. As far as present life, it doesn’t rule it out but probably means we should look for life underground where it’s shielded from the harsh radiation environment on the surface,” Wadsworth told the Guardian.
While these findings might temporarily deter groups preparing to colonize the Red Planet, Astronomy Magazine points out the positive. NASA has always been extremely careful about contaminating other planets with Earthly bacteria. If Mars’ environment is so toxic to bacteria that it can’t even survive on the surface, contamination may no longer be as big a concern.
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