Published: Sat, July 08, 2017
Research | By Elizabeth Houston

Mars Is Even Less Hospitable Than We Thought

Mars Is Even Less Hospitable Than We Thought

Magnesium perchlorate was placed under short-wave UV radiation, to simulate the same conditions on the surface of Mars.

Despite the finding, Professor George said there was still a possibility of finding life on Mars - but they will have to search deeper.

When the Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft landed on Mars in 1976, they detected what appeared to be perchlorates in the Martian soil, and three subsequent spacecraft, including the Curiosity rover, which is still hard at work on the Red Planet, confirmed that finding. But a recent study seems to prove otherwise. But the team found that perchlorate could also be activated under the only effect of the UV. Martian soil is laced with perchlorates, an ion composed of one chlorine and four oxygen atoms, and which binds to a number of different elements to form various compounds.

In order to determine whether the found substance is good or bad for life, postgraduate student Jennifer Wadsworth and Professor Charles Cockell, both of the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy chose to recreate Mars conditions and soil to see whether Earth friendly bacteria can survive. Mars has a thin atmosphere, which often leaves its surface bathed in UV rays. However, this same substance can also simultaneously be toxic to the same bacteria it feeds, which depends exclusively on the presence of ultraviolet radiation and Mars has that in abundance. Bacteria that were only exposed to the UV radiation died within 60 seconds. Upon adding in other components found in Martian soil, iron oxide and hydrogen peroxide, the results were even worse: Bacteria were killed 11 times faster than with just perchlorates.

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There still remains some hope for surface microbes.

A new study has revealed that compounds present in the Martian soil can wipe out whole bacterial cultures within minutes.

The findings suggest the surface of Mars is less inhabitable than we previously thought, but on the plus side, it means that bacteria and other biological contaminants from robotic and human exploration missions are unlikely to survive on the red planet. While we should continue to take care when sending anything into outer space, any microscopic Earth-based life that hitches a ride to Mars will likely be killed by Mars' toxic conditions. A least we don't have to fear that we will accidentally contaminate Mars with Earth bacteria which could potentially outcompete the native organisms.

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