Microbial life on Mars: Could saltwater make it possible?

Aug 17, 2011
A mounting body of evidence suggests the presence of liquid water on the Red Planet. Credit: NASA

(PhysOrg.com) -- How common are droplets of saltwater on Mars? Could microbial life survive and reproduce in them? A new million-dollar NASA project led by the University of Michigan aims to answer those questions.

This project begins three years after beads of liquid brine were first photographed on one of the Phoenix lander's legs.

"On Earth, everywhere there's liquid water, there is microbial life," said Nilton Renno, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences who is the principal investigator. Researchers from NASA, the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Georgia and the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid are also involved.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Nilton Renno describes this project

Scientists in the United States will create Mars conditions in lab chambers and study how and when brines form. These shoe-box-sized modules will have wispy carbon dioxide and atmospheres with 99 percent lower than the average pressure on Earth at sea level. Temperatures will range from -100 to -80 Fahrenheit and will be adjusted to mimic daily and . Instruments will alert the researchers to the formation of brine pockets, which could potentially be habitable by certain forms of .

Their colleagues overseas will seed similar chambers with salt-loving "extremophile" microorganisms from deep in Antarctic lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. The will observe whether these organisms survive, grow and reproduce in brines just below the surface of the soil. All known forms of life need liquid water to live. But microbes don't need much. A droplet or a thin film could suffice, researchers say.

"If we find microbes that can survive and replicate in brines at Mars conditions, we would have demonstrated that could exist on Mars today," Renno said.

Globules of liquid saltwater were pictured on the leg of the Phoenix Mars Lander. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

With his colleagues on the Mars Phoenix mission in 2008, Renno theorized that globules that moved and coalesced on the spacecraft's leg were liquid saltwater. Independent physical and thermodynamic evidence as well as follow-up experiments have confirmed that the drops were liquid and not frost or ice. The Phoenix photos are believed to be the first pictures of outside the Earth.

The median temperature at the Phoenix landing site was -70 degrees Fahrenheit during the mission—too cold for liquid fresh water. But "perchlorate" salts found in the site's soils could lower water's freezing point dramatically, so that it could exist as liquid brine. The salts are also capable of absorbing water from the atmosphere in a process called deliquescence.

Explore further: Witness: Space tourism rocket explodes in desert

Related Stories

Model Suggests Origins of Mars Gullies

Feb 09, 2009

University of Arkansas researchers have used chemistry and geology to create a model that may explain the mystery of how modern-day gullies form on the surface of Mars.

Recommended for you

Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

Oct 30, 2014

(Phys.org) —As it soared past Saturn's large moon Titan recently, NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas.

Is space tourism safe or do civilians risk health effects?

Oct 30, 2014

Several companies are developing spacecraft designed to take ordinary citizens, not astronauts, on short trips into space. "Space tourism" and short periods of weightlessness appear to be safe for most individuals ...

An unmanned rocket exploded. So what?

Oct 30, 2014

Sputnik was launched more than 50 years ago. Since then we have seen missions launched to Mercury, Mars and to all the planets within the solar system. We have sent a dozen men to the moon and many more to ...

User comments : 16

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

natetuvkok
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
nice,means we only know so little
natetuvkok
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
are we bringing stuff back to mars?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (6) Aug 17, 2011
How hard can it be to equip a lander/rover with an arm which has a microscope attached?

It's really nice that we have all these machines on Mars but why don't we ever include an instrument for _direct_ observation of life rather than all these indirect methods?
MPJ
5 / 5 (5) Aug 17, 2011
How hard can it be to equip a lander/rover with an arm which has a microscope attached?

It's really nice that we have all these machines on Mars but why don't we ever include an instrument for _direct_ observation of life rather than all these indirect methods?


The Viking landers actually had life detection experiments which yielded positive results - especially the Viking LR which was the most sensitive of all the experiments.

Since then NASA seems a little shy of follow-up the positive Viking results in 35 years now...
Squirrel
4.7 / 5 (6) Aug 17, 2011
Who is mentally prepared for the definite discovery of life on Mars? Since if there is life there then life is endemic everywhere in the Universe. Instead of being alone, we are merely one tiny drop of organic creativity in the vast cosmic ocean.
Shootist
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2011
are we bringing stuff back to mars?

Wha?

How do you "directly detect life", as opposed to indirectly detecting?

Few scientists believe there were unambiguous signs of life from Viking.

Why do I need to be prepared for "discover(ing) life on Mars"? From my POV, Life is ubiquitous.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Aug 17, 2011
How do you "directly detect life",

Put a microscope to spot of this brine/water and see if anything wiggles.
See if it gasses out anything under light which it doesn't do in the dark.
Check for infrared hotspots.
Check for complex geometries using bifocals
-...

Who is mentally prepared for the definite discovery of life on Mars?

Who isn't? Who wouldn't be excited about such a find?
Who _cares_ whether anyone is prepared for such a find? Finding out facts isn't bad. Quite the opposite: Willfuly remaining ignorant so as to nurture some faulty world view might be deadly.

we are merely one tiny drop of organic creativity in the vast cosmic ocean.

All the better. Think of what kinds of ideas can be spawned by life based on different physiologies.

However, 'finding life' doesn't automatically mean 'finding intelligent life'. So even if we do find some microbe-analog in our own solar system that still leaves us with an exciting search for ET.
Nanobanano
2.1 / 5 (7) Aug 17, 2011
Our government doesn't want to find conclusive evidence one way or another. Designing experiments to leave more open-ended questions than answers gives them an excuse to funnel more money to black projects as part of the "NASA" budget. Answering any space-related questions definitively would reduce their cover options for black projects.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
Our government doesn't want to find conclusive evidence one way or another.

Well, there are other governments that can (and have) put probes on Mars.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2011
If we don't find life in the brine on Mars, maybe pickles?
Sin_Amos
5 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2011
"Our government doesn't want to find conclusive evidence one way or another. Designing experiments to leave more open-ended questions than answers gives them an excuse to funnel more money to black projects as part of the "NASA" budget. Answering any space-related questions definitively would reduce their cover options for black projects." ---Why would anyone on this board vote this down? How blissfully ignorant are you folks? Control manifests itself constantly, so to discount truth of hypocrisy and corruption in the vein of power is self-deceiving and foolish.
ubavontuba
1 / 5 (1) Aug 21, 2011
This makes no sense to me at all.

Where did the perchlorate come from? I mean it's not like Phoenix landed in a salt bed. They only measured traces of perchlorate in the soil samples. Are they suggesting the leg speckles were somehow purified?

And, where did the water come from? Mars' atmosphere is quite dry (average .016%). And the ground was found to be "extremely dry." Why would water condense onto the leg, but not on/in the thirsty soil?

http://www.nasa.g...904.html

Has anyone thought to consider this may be an entirely different liquid? Perhaps a liquid hydrocarbon?

Vendicar_Decarian
3 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2011
"It's really nice that we have all these machines on Mars but why don't we ever include an instrument for _direct_ observation of life rather than all these indirect methods?" - Foofie Woofie

Some consider the cameras to be a method of direct observation.

No one anticipates microbes on the surface of Mars because of the sterilizing effects of UV at it's surface.

So since, none of the landers have had drills to penetrate the surface to the depth of several meters or more, a microscope wasn't considered such a good idea.

Meanwhile the indirect methods are more sensitive.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 22, 2011
No one anticipates microbes on the surface of Mars because of the sterilizing effects of UV at it's surface.

There are microbes that can survive UV (and if life is present then it certainly will adapt to the conditions of Mars by being UV resistant)

The rovers have a spatula which can dig down a few centimeters. It's not unheard of that microbes live in the soil instead of on top of it.

If we do anticipiate any kind of life on Mars hen it will be microbes (or similar small scale life). So if we're loking at all then we should have bring something better than a TV-camera.

The question of life on Mars should merit a lot more prominent slot than taking a few panoramic pictures (which we can do nicely from space)
Vendicar_Decarian
1 / 5 (1) Aug 22, 2011
"The rovers have a spatula which can dig down a few centimeters" - Antialias

No they don't.

http://upload.wik...over.jpg

You might be thinking of Mars Polar Lander.

http://en.wikiped...gram.png
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 22, 2011
You're right.

But the rover does have a small drill (RAT-rock abrasion tool) and the wheels have already been used to make a trench.

http://www.msnbc....science/

So it would have already been possible to get a look at what is under the surface if the arm had also been equppied with some good optics - or just some cheap radioshack stuff.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.