Ancient Mars Had Energy Source for Potential Life Underground

A new study suggests that if life got a foothold in the Martian subsurface long ago, it could have tapped into a generous chemical energy source. According to the study, this source was hydrogen, generated when radiation split underground water into its constituent parts.

Mars, as seen in the 1970s by NASA's Viking 1 orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

A new study suggests that if life got a foothold in the Martian subsurface long ago, it could have tapped into a generous chemical energy source.
According to the study, this source was hydrogen, generated when radiation split underground water into its constituent parts. And there was probably enough available hydrogen down there to sustain a sizable community of Mars microbes for hundreds of millions of years, starting about 4 billion years ago.
Study lead author, Jesse Tarnas said in a statement, "We showed, based on basic physics and chemistry calculations, that the ancient Martian subsurface likely had enough dissolved hydrogen to power a global sub-surface biosphere. Conditions in this habitable zone would have been similar to places on Earth where underground life exists." 
Using data gathered by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, Tarnas and his colleagues mapped out abundances of the radioactive elements thorium, potassium and uranium in the "Habitable zone" crust. Because these elements decay at known rates, the team could extrapolate backward, determining the levels in ancient times.
The researchers also consider measurements of the Martian crust's density, as well as the results of geothermal and climate models, to resolve how much water was likely available to be split by this native radiation when the planet was young. 
They concluded that the Red Planet probably harbored a global subsurface "habitable zone" several kilometers thick about 4 billion years ago, the same epoch when liquid water was flowing across the Martian surface.
Study team members said, "A cold ancient Mars would likely make it harder for life to bloom and radiate on the surface, but the same isn't true for hypothetical subterranean organisms. Indeed, overlying ice would actually make the subsurface zone more habitable, by preventing newly split hydrogen from escaping into the atmosphere.'
"People have a conception that a cold early Mars climate is bad for life, but what we show is that there's actually more chemical energy for life underground in a cold climate. That's something we think could change people's perception of the relationship between climate and past life on Mars," Tarnas said.
The new study, which will be published in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, could help future missions that aim to search for signs of Red Planet life, such as NASA's 2020 Mars rover

Source: Space.com

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Scien-Tech News: Ancient Mars Had Energy Source for Potential Life Underground
Ancient Mars Had Energy Source for Potential Life Underground
A new study suggests that if life got a foothold in the Martian subsurface long ago, it could have tapped into a generous chemical energy source. According to the study, this source was hydrogen, generated when radiation split underground water into its constituent parts.
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