MarsNews.com
September 24th, 2018

Ancient Mars Had Right Conditions For Underground Life, New Research Suggests

New research shows that ancient Mars likely had ample chemical energy to support the kinds of underground microbial colonies that exist on Earth. Credit: NASA

A new study shows evidence that ancient Mars probably had an ample supply of chemical energy for microbes to thrive underground.

“We showed, based on basic physics and chemistry calculations, that the ancient Martian subsurface likely had enough dissolved hydrogen to power a global subsurface biosphere,” said Jesse Tarnas, a graduate student at Brown University and lead author of a study published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. “Conditions in this habitable zone would have been similar to places on Earth where underground life exists.”

Earth is home to what are known as subsurface lithotrophic microbial ecosystems — SliMEs for short. Lacking energy from sunlight, these subterranean microbes often get their energy by peeling electrons off of molecules in their surrounding environments. Dissolved molecular hydrogen is a great electron donor and is known to fuel SLiMEs on Earth.

This new study shows that radiolysis, a process through which radiation breaks water molecules into their constituent hydrogen and oxygen parts, would have created plenty of hydrogen in the ancient Martian subsurface. The researchers estimate that hydrogen concentrations in the crust around 4 billion years ago would have been in the range of concentrations that sustain plentiful microbes on Earth today.

The findings don’t mean that life definitely existed on ancient Mars, but they do suggest that if life did indeed get started, the Martian subsurface had the key ingredients to support it for hundreds of millions of years. The work also has implications for future Mars exploration, suggesting that areas where the ancient subsurface is exposed might be good places to look for evidence of past life.

July 25th, 2018

Mars Express Detects Liquid Water Hidden Under Planet’s South Pole

The European Space Agency (ESA)

Radar data collected by ESA’s Mars Express point to a pond of liquid water buried under layers of ice and dust in the south polar region of Mars.

Evidence for the Red Planet’s watery past is prevalent across its surface in the form of vast dried-out river valley networks and gigantic outflow channels clearly imaged by orbiting spacecraft. Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water.

But the climate has changed significantly over the course of the planet’s 4.6 billion year history and liquid water cannot exist on the surface today, so scientists are looking underground. Early results from the 15-year old Mars Express spacecraft already found that water-ice exists at the planet’s poles and is also buried in layers interspersed with dust.

The presence of liquid water at the base of the polar ice caps has long been suspected; after all, from studies on Earth, it is well known that the melting point of water decreases under the pressure of an overlying glacier. Moreover, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of water and keep the water liquid even at below-freezing temperatures.

But until now evidence from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument, MARSIS, the first radar sounder ever to orbit another planet, remained inconclusive.

It has taken the persistence of scientists working with this subsurface-probing instrument to develop new techniques in order to collect as much high-resolution data as possible to confirm their exciting conclusion.

June 18th, 2018

Pushing the limit: could cyanobacteria terraform Mars?

Cyanobacteria could be used to render the atmospheres of other planets suitable for human life.
Credit: DETLEV VAN RAVENSWAAY/GETTY IMAGES

The bacteria that 3.5 billion years ago were largely responsible for the creation of a breathable atmosphere on Earth could be press-ganged into terraforming other planets, research suggests.

A team of biologists and chemists from Australia, the UK, France and Italy has been investigating the ability of cyanobacteria – also known as blue-green algae – to photosynthesise in low-light conditions.

Cyanobacteria are some of the most ancient organisms around, and were responsible, though photosynthesis, for converting the Earth’s early atmosphere of methane, ammonia and other gases into the composition it sustains today.

The photochemistry used by the microbes is pretty much the same as that used by the legion of multicellular plants that subsequently evolved. The process involves the use of red light. Most plants are green because chlorophyll is bad at absorbing energy from that part of the visible light spectrum, and thus reflects it.

Light itself, however, is a critical component for photosynthesis, which is why plants (and suitably equipped bacteria) fail to grow in very dark environments. Just how dark such environments need to be before the process becomes impossible was the focus of the new research.

The team of scientists, which included Elmars Krausz from the Australian National University in Canberra, tested the ability of a cyanobacterial species called Chroococcidiopsis thermalis to photosynthesise in low light.

Previously it had been widely thought that the necessary photochemistry shut down at a light wavelength of 700 nanometres – a point known as the “red limit”.

June 7th, 2018

Curiosity Rover Finds 3.5-Billion-Year-Old Organic Compounds and Strange Methane on Mars

A potential explanation for the seasonal Martian methane.
Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No, NASA hasn’t discovered life on Mars yet—but a new result makes it seem like maybe, at some point in the planet’s history, the conditions were ripe for some extraterrestrial beings. Maybe.

The scientists behind experiments conducted by the Curiosity rover are today reporting two results that make the Red Planet’s story even more interesting. One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock. Another noticed the methane levels around Curiosity varied by the season. Combined, these results present tantalizing hints of a potentially habitable Martian past.

From everything we can tell of the chemistry and the minerals deposited in the Gale crater where Curiosity is stationed, “we think it was a habitable environment,” Jennifer Eigenbrode from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center told Gizmodo. “It had the ability to support life—but doesn’t mean life were there.”

As for the methane, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer measured the methane levels in its surrounding atmosphere over five years. The levels averaged at 0.41 parts per billion by volume, but ranged from 0.24 to 0.65 depending on the season. Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it’s a mystery what could be causing it on Mars. Perhaps it’s some geologic process. “It probably indicates more active water in the subsurface than we understood,” scientist Kirsten Siebach, Martian geologist at Rice University not involved with the studies, told Gizmodo.

April 12th, 2018

Inside The Cleanroom Where NASA’s New Mars Lander Waits to Launch

A few rule for the cleanroom where NASA’s new InSight Mars lander waits for launch. One, if you must sneeze, sneeze away from the spacecraft. Two, if you drop anything, let one of NASA’s escorts pick it up for you. Three, do not under any circumstances cross the black-and-yellow-striped tape and touch the spacecraft.

Oh also—an engineer tells a dozen media in a conference room at Vandenberg Air Force Base—do not lick the spacecraft. There’s always that one rebel, I suppose.

The reasons to behave ourselves are many, and they are serious. For one, InSight costs nearly a billion dollars, and although it’s engineered to survive the punishing journey to Mars, it’s not engineered to be licked. And two, this conference room is loaded with planetary protection specialists, whose oh-no-big-deal job is to make sure Earthling microbes don’t end up colonizing Mars. And not just for the solar system’s sake—NASA is obligated by international treaty to keep other planets clean. In just a month, it’ll fire InSight to the Red Planet, where the lander will drill to unravel the geological mysteries of our solar system’s rocky bodies.

November 13th, 2017

Life Can Survive on Mars Far, Far Longer Than We Thought Universe Today

Mars is not exactly a friendly place for life as we know it. While temperatures at the equator can reach as high as a balmy 35 °C (95 °F) in the summer at midday, the average temperature on the surface is -63 °C (-82 °F), and can reach as low as -143 °C (-226 °F) during winter in the polar regions. Its atmospheric pressure is about one-half of one percent of Earth’s, and the surface is exposed to a considerable amount of radiation.

Until now, no one was certain if microorganisms could survive in this extreme environment. But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers from the Lomonosov Moscow State University (LMSU), we may now be able to place constraints on what kinds of conditions microorganisms can withstand. This study could therefore have significant implications in the hunt for life elsewhere in the Solar System, and maybe even beyond!

March 24th, 2017

‘Life’ horror movie sparks reality check on procedures for studying Mars samples Universe Today

Rebecca Ferguson plays Miranda North, a planetary protection officer aboard the International Space Station, in the movie “Life.” (Sony Pictures Digital Productions)

Rebecca Ferguson plays Miranda North, a planetary protection officer aboard the International Space Station, in the movie “Life.” (Sony Pictures Digital Productions)

Spoiler Alert! This article doesn’t reveal any major plot twists, but wait to read it if you’re trying to stay totally in the dark about the plot of the movie “Life.”

Let sleeping Martians lie, particularly if they have a strong grip: That’s one of the lessons you could take away from “Life,” the first monster movie set on the International Space Station.

The movie – which opens today and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds – blends the gory horror of “Alien” with the harrowing suspense of “Gravity.” It’s a tour de force of simulated zero-G acrobatics (done mostly with ropes and wires). And it’s an orbital illustration of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong with having an alien on board does go wrong.

Purists may have questions about just how wrong it goes. Could a minuscule life form brought back from Mars really get that big that quickly? Is it really possible to combine neural, muscular and sensory functions in one cell? And just how easy is it for things to come loose (or get loose) on the space station?

The deepest question may well be, does this nightmare have any chance of happening in real life?

January 23rd, 2017

Microbes Could Survive Thin Air of Mars Universe Today

An artist’s impression of what Mars might have looked like with water, when any potential Martian microbes would have evolved.  Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

An artist’s impression of what Mars might have looked like with water, when any potential Martian microbes would have evolved.
Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Microbes that rank among the simplest and most ancient organisms on Earth could survive the extremely thin air of Mars, a new study finds.

The martian surface is presently cold and dry, but there is plenty of evidence suggesting that rivers, lakes and seas covered the Red Planet billions of years ago. Since there is life virtually wherever there is liquid water on Earth, scientists have suggested that life might have evolved on Mars when it was wet, and life could be there even now.

“In all the environments we find here on Earth, there is some sort of microorganism in almost all of them,” said Rebecca Mickol, an astrobiologist at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and the lead author of the study. “It’s hard to believe there aren’t other organisms out there on other planets or moons as well.”

Mickol and her team detailed their findings in the paper, “Low Pressure Tolerance by Methanogens in an Aqueous Environment: Implications for Subsurface Life on Mars,” which was published in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres.

March 14th, 2016

Mars TGO mission heads for Red Planet on methane quest Universe Today

The satellite, called the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), lifted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT.

The probe will investigate whether the methane in the world’s atmosphere is coming from a geological source or is being produced by microbes.

If all goes well, the two space powers expect to follow up this venture with a rover, to be assembled in the UK, which will drill into the surface.

That could launch in 2018, or, as seems increasingly likely, in 2020.

October 15th, 2015

Did Mars once have rivers? Pebbles say yes. Universe Today

Researchers have used the shape of rounded Martian pebbles to extrapolate how far they must have traveled down an ancient riverbed on the Red Planet. The analysis suggests they moved approximately 30 miles (50 kilometers), indicating that Mars once had an extensive river system.

The shape of some Martian pebbles suggests these rocks once rolled dozens of miles down a river, hinting that ancient Martian waterways were stable and not merely ephemeral streams, researchers say.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity discovered the small, round stones near its landing site in Gale Crater on the Red Planet in 2013. Researchers previously determined that these stones resemble those found in rivers on Earth, which become round as they slide, roll and hop down riverbeds and scrape other rocks.

Now, a new study suggests the Martian rocks rolled in the river for quite a while — a finding that should help scientists reconstruct what ancient Mars was like and shed light on the Red Planet’s past potential to support life, study team members said.