The topic of whether it is possible to sustain life on Mars has long been debated on by the world of science. And if you ask SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, it just may be possible to send ordinary people to the Red Planet to colonize it at some point in the future. But new research may prove to be a spanner in the works for the likes of Musk, as a certain agent in the planet’s soil may end up destroying life instead of sustaining it.
A report from Astronomy magazine detailed the new study from the United Kingdom Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh, which suggests that Martian soil is rich in a salt called perchlorate. This is an ion made up of one chlorine and four oxygen atoms, and could create different byproducts once it is blended with other elements.
At first, it looked like a “cause for celebration” for those hoping that life on Mars is possible, as it is capable of reducing the freezing point of water, suggesting that liquid water could thrive on the Red Planet’s surface. The study also revealed that perchlorate could allow for the production of rocket fuel and oxygen, the former a necessity for potential settlers, the latter a key ingredient of life.
— Engadget (@engadget) July 6, 2017
Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends, as the perchlorates found on Martian soil are actually dangerous to life, if blended in with the ultraviolet radiation that batters the planet on a regular basis. To test this theory, the researchers took a strain of bacteria typically found on spacecraft to varying levels of perchlorates and UV light from Mars. With a few exceptions, the microorganisms all died within a minute of exposure, and that too was the case when the researchers tried experimenting with other varieties of perchlorate.
In addition to the presence of perchlorates on Martian soil, the prospects of life on Mars are further complicated by the planet’s low temperatures, a lack of oxygen, and other minerals found on the Martian surface. According to Engadget, the experiments showed the bacteria dying 11 times faster once the microorganisms were exposed to the above-mentioned variables.
“These data show that the combined effects of at least three components of the Martian surface, activated by surface photochemistry, render the present-day surface more uninhabitable than previously thought,” the researchers wrote in the paper, as quoted by Engadget.
All in all, the findings were a surprise to the researchers, as they had used a strain called Bacilus subtilis, which typically did well when exposed to perchlorates in previous studies. There were big hopes at first that the bacteria could survive in the simulated Martian conditions, but in the end, it was the UV radiation that proved to be the real catalyst in killing the bacteria. The researchers believe that UV light causes the perchlorate molecules to break up into more reactive ions that could kill living cells.
There is, however, some consolation for those who are still hoping that life on Mars is possible. As NASA is generally concerned about the chances of contaminating other planets with bacteria found on our planet, the study’s findings mean that bacteria has no chance of contaminating the Red Planet, thanks to the perchlorates found on the planet’s soil.
Another consolation may come in the form of a statement from NASA Ames Research Center scientist Lynn Rothschild, who told Gizmodo that only one form of bacteria was tested, and that it’s still unsure whether other types of bacteria would be able to survive in similar tests. That could mean finding life on Mars is still remotely possible due to these biological differences, though this still remains highly speculative.
UPDATE [7/9/17, 7:25 a.m. ET]: Statement from NASA scientist Lynn Rothschild, from interview with Gizmodo.
[Featured Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images]