A study published in Astrobiology argues that radioactive decay may have fueled – and fed in the future – microbial life in the underground of Mars. Well, easy with big words, it’s less complicated than it looks. The process known as radiolysis works like this: Radioactive elements break up underground water molecules, producing the ingredients suitable for underground life. On Earth, this process has kept bacteria in distant crevices of the Earth for millions or billions of years, and now could prove crucial for Mars.
Mars, as you know, is not exactly a hospitable place at the moment: dust storms, cosmic rays and solar winds are destroying the surface of the Red Planet. But life underground can find refuge. “The best habitable environment on Mars is the Earth’s interior,” says Jesse Tarnas, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of the new study. Studying the Martian subsoil can help scientists see if life can hold, and the best samples we have today are the Martian meteorites that have fallen to Earth over the years.
Tarnas and colleagues evaluated the size, mineral composition, and abundance of radioactive elements in Martian meteorites, and estimated the porosity of Mars’ crust using satellite and rover data. They put these traits into a computer model that simulates radioactive decay, to see how efficiently the process generates hydrogen gas and sulfate, the chemical ingredients that can fuel the metabolism of underground bacteria. The researchers report that, given the presence of water, radioactive decay in Mars’ interior could sustain microbial communities for billions of years, and may still do so today.
Scientists have already studied the radiometric analysis of Mars, but this is the first study to use Martian rocks. Tarnas and colleagues say that given the study, there could be as many as one million microbes in one kilogram of rock. (Values are similar to those found underground.)
The most habitable meteorite specimens are those of a type of rock called breccia regolith. “They are thought to have come from the southern highlands of Mars, the oldest terrain on Mars,” Tarnas says.
However, life underground, as described by this research, requires water, and it is not certain that groundwater exists on this planet. Find out if there will be the next and most important step.
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