By: April Carson
A new study suggests that there may be more than one kind of life on Mars. If so, it would be buried six feet deep.
This is significant because it means that any life on Mars would be shielded from the harmful radiation that bombards the planet's surface. This is important for two reasons: first, it means that any life on Mars would be very well protected from the harsh conditions on the surface; and second, it means that any signs of life would be much more difficult to detect from Earth.
New evidence suggests that if we want to find life on Mars, we'll have to dig much deeper than before. Any traces of amino acids left over from a time when Mars may have been fit for human habitation are likely entombed at least 2 meters (6.6 feet) beneath the surface.
Because Mars has no magnetic field and an atmosphere that is less sturdy, it receives a far more significant dose of cosmic radiation on its surface than Earth does. We understand this, and we also realize that ionizing radiation kills amino acids. It stands to reason, then, that any signs of ancient life on Mars would be much more difficult to detect from Earth.
We also know now, thanks to experimental data, that this occurs on extremely short timeframes, geologically speaking. In a handful of earth years, any exposed surface on Mars would be sterilized by the harsh radiation.
So if there was any ancient life on Mars, it would be buried beneath the surface, out of reach of our instruments.
This doesn't mean that there's no hope of finding signs of ancient Martian life. It just means that we have to look a little harder, and that we might not find anything at all.
At much quicker rates, according to our research, amino acids are broken down by cosmic rays in the Martian surface rocks and regolith. According to Alexander Pavlov of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, "Our findings suggest that amino acids are destroyed at a greater rate than previously thought in Martian surface rocks and regolith."
It might take only 20 million years at those depths to destroy amino acids completely, according to recent Mars rover operations. It would take only 20 million years at those depths to destroy all of the amino acids. Even more rapidly, the presence of perchlorates and water contributes to the rate of amino acid deterioration.
The danger of radiation from outer space is a major concern for Martian exploration. The average person on Earth is exposed to approximately 0.33 millisieverts of cosmic radiation each year. On Mars, the yearly dose might be as much as 250 millisieverts or more.
Solar flares and violent phenomena like supernovae produce high-energy radiation that can pierce through rock, ionizing and destroying any organic molecules it comes into contact with. This is why any signs of life on Mars would likely be buried several feet below the surface, where the rock provides some protection from the deadly radiation.
Even if there was once life on Mars, it may be long gone by now. The harsh conditions and relentless barrage of cosmic radiation make it unlikely that any organisms could have survived for very long. If there is life on Mars, it’s probably deep underground where it’s safe from the harmful effects of space weather.
Mars is believed to have had a global magnetic field and a much thicker atmosphere at one time, somewhat like Earth. There's also proof – a lot of it – that liquid water once existed on the Martian surface in the form of oceans, rivers, and lakes.
This collection of characteristics implies that Mars may have been habitable in the past (perhaps many times). And if it was able to support life in the past, there's a chance that it could support life today – albeit in a very different form.
However, the current conditions on Mars make it a very hostile environment for any kind of known life. The thin atmosphere provides little protection from the harmful effects of cosmic radiation and solar storms. And the average temperature is well below freezing, which would also be deadly for most known organisms.
The presence of amino acids is one indication that Mars might be inhabited. These organic chemicals aren't biosignatures, but they are some of the most fundamental components of life.
Amino acids are found in space rocks like asteroid Ryugu and the atmosphere of Comet 67P, so they're not an indicator of life per se. They've also been discovered in space rocks including comet PANSTARRS and asteroid number 3124 Haumea. So far, amino acids have only been discovered on Earth; therefore, finding them on Mars would be another clue pointing to life's inception on the planet at some point.
Pavlov and his team wanted to figure out how likely it is to detect amino acids on the Martian surface, so they designed an experiment to test their durability. The researchers simulated the Martian atmosphere and radiation conditions in a chamber, bombarding amino acids with ultraviolet (UV) light, which is more intense on Mars than on Earth.
At different Mars-like temperatures, the researchers combined amino acids with mineral mixtures that included silica, hydrated silica, or silica and perchlorates (salts), then sealed them in test tubes representing the Martian atmosphere.
After that, the samples were subjected to ionizing gamma radiation, which represented the Mars surface's dose of cosmic radiation over an era of approximately 80 million years. Previously, only the amino acids have been bombarded; no soil simulants were used. This could have resulted in a faulty estimate for the amino acids' longevity.
"Our study is the first to examine a broad range of amino acids' destruction under a variety of Mars-relevant circumstances (temperature, water content, perchlorate abundance) and the rates of radiolysis," Pavlov explains. "It was discovered that the addition of silicates, especially those with perchlorates, greatly enhances the rates of amino acid decomposition."
Any amino acids on the Martian surface prior to about 100 million years ago are most likely destroyed by radiation.
With that in mind, even if Mars' surface hasn't been suitable for life as we know it for much longer than millions of years – rather than millennia – the centimeters or so that Curiosity and Perseverance can dig is unlikely to provide amino acids.
Mars has yielded organic material in the form of both rovers, but because the molecules might have been produced by non-biological processes, they can't be regarded as proof of life. Furthermore, ionizing radiation appears to have significantly altered those chemicals since their formation.
But, according to some astronomers, the Mars Science Laboratory rover will not be as big of a game-changer for analysis purposes as Curiosity was. Some other evidence suggests that the research team may be on to something. Material from below the Martian surface does occasionally reach Earth. In fact, amino acids have been discovered there previously.
"We did discover a few straight-chain amino acids in the Antarctic Martian meteorite RBT 04262 at Goddard's Astrobiology Analytical Lab that we believe originated on Mars (not contamination from terrestrial life), but the mechanism of formation of these amino acids in RBT 04262 is unknown," astrobiologist Danny Glavin of NASA Goddard added.
"It's conceivable that the amino acids in RBT 04262 were preserved from cosmic radiation since Mars meteors typically travel a minimum of 3.3 feet (1 meter) or more before they are released."
These amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins, and are necessary for life as we know it. So, if extraterrestrial radiation can create them, perhaps it's not such a deadly force after all — at least not to the potential Martians we're searching for.
"This finding adds to a growing body of evidence that there is a potential for life on Mars," Glavin said. "It also suggests that we need to be careful in how we search for evidence of life on other worlds, because it might be hidden from view."
The new study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Mitochondria - The Bodies Powerhouse with Elisabeth Hoekstra and Billy Carson
About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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