As long as humanity has observed the skies, it is possible that other worlds – like Earth – may contain living organisms that we have fascinated. While our Moon visits have taught us that it is totally uninhabited, there remain many other ways within our Solar System. In its cloud tops, Venus could have life. In a sub-surface ocean of liquid water, Europa and Enceladus may have life. Even the liquid hydrocarbon lakes of Titan provide an exciting spot to look for exotic living organisms. But the red planet – Mars – is by far the most fascinating option. This smaller, colder, farther Earth cousin certainly wet over the past, with more than a billion years of water flowing clearly on the floor. Circumstantial evidence pointed to the plausibility of Mars life, not only in the old past, but perhaps still living, and even now sometimes active. Life on Mars, there are five life opportunities. We made a number of fascinating discoveries on Mars with the information we have gathered from different orbiters, landers, and rovers. On the Martian surface, we see dried fluvial beds and ancient glacial events. On Mars, we find small hematite spheres, as well as abundant evidence of sedimentary rock, which only forms in aqueous environments on earth. And we saw on Mars in real-time solid ice, snow, and even frozen surface water. We have even noticed what is probably briny surface water that flows actively through the walls of several craters but the outcome is controversial. Early Mars, too, was full of raw ingredients necessary for life on Earth, including a thick atmosphere and liquid water. While Mars no longer seems to be full of life today, there are three pieces of evidence that past or even present lives could be a chance.
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The first compelling evidence came from the NASA Mars Viking landing instruments in 1976. There have been three biological experiments: a gas exchange test, a labeled release test, and a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer experiment, followed by a pyrolyte release experiment. When the two Viking landers were carried out, the labeled release experiment gave a positive result, but only the first time the test took place. All other experiments returned negatively. The second piece of evidence arrived at the recovery on 27 December 1984 of a fragment from a Martian meteorite—Allan Hills 84001. It turns out that about 2 kgs heavy is approximately 3% of all the meteorites falling to Earth from Mars, but this was especially large. Initially, it was formed on Mars about 4 billion years ago and it was only 13,000 years ago on earth. In 1996, it seems that, when we looked into it, it contained materials that were the remnants, even though they were inorganic processes, of fossilized organic life forms. And after that, NASA’s latest Mars rover came the third piece of evidence: Curiosity. With the changing seasons on Mars, “burps” of methane were detected in certain soil locations but only at the end of the Martian winter, and the start of the spring. This is once again an ambiguous signal, at best as inorganic geochemical processes can be seasonal and lead to the release of methane, but this may also be caused by organic, biological processes.
Mars today’s surface is generally unfriendly to our lives. It is cold, dry, and chemically oxidizing. The solar ultraviolet radiation flow is high. The temperature is important not only for its controlled effect on metabolic rates but also for its influence on fluid water stability. While the peak daytime surface temperature near the equator may rise during many or all years above the freezing point of the water, the average surface temperature is at approximately -55oC, which is well below the freezing point. For life as we know it, liquid water is essential because every known earthly life is based on aqueous chemistry. Given our current knowledge of chemistry and biology, the existence of life without liquid water is hard to imagine. Mars has plenty of water, however, is not liquid (e.g., Jakosky and Haberle, 1992). The atmosphere is full of water vapor and ice crystals. Actually, water is often saturated there or near the surface because of the cold temperature of the atmosphere. In soils at high latitudes, where the subsoil temperatures are colder enough for airborne water vapor to diffuse into the surface and condense like ice, water ice is almost certainly present. In the polar regions, ice is also present on the surface. The water-ice residual polar cap is heated enough to allow water to sublimate into the atmosphere during the half-year-long northern polar summer and spread globally.
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Liquid water may occur in isolated pockets on or near the surface, but such occurrences are probably very rare. The right salts and sufficient amounts can decrease sufficiently the freezing point to allow for a liquid solution, though the liquid is unstable for evaporation. Alternatively, under certain circumstances, ice crystals trapped in closed pores in rocks or regolith grain may melt and the resulting fluid water may evaporate by being locked in the middle. Analytical testing of the Viking Landers reveals that Mars’s surface is highly oxidizing, even if the exact nature of the oxidants has not been established. Martian ground may contain oxidants, like hydrogen peroxide, which is photochemically assumed to be formed from atmospheric water vapor and readily diffused in the soil. If present, organic molecules or biota would be reacted and destroyed and could be effective in surface sterilization. The absence of organic molecules in the soil may be responsible for their presence. The atmosphere is relatively thin, with an average of about 6 mg and mainly carbon dioxide. Due to the low atmospheric ozone concentration, ultraviolet sunlight can almost unattended on the surface of Mars. Some ultraviolet ozone, but only for a span of a few years and over a part of the planet, can absorb the winter hémisphere. Due to the ozone layer on Earth, the attenuation is much less than that. Thus, the entire surface of the planet undergoes a strong stream of ultraviolet radiation over the entire Martian year.
We have some clues to indicate past or present life there, but completely inorganic processes can explain all of these results. The only way to find out the truth, as always, is through more and better science with superior tools and techniques. The next step will be to return them to the world in laboratory analysis, as the NASA rover Perseverance progresses towards a variety of ground samples. If we succeed in this, we would surely know which of these five opportunities is most in keeping with the truth about Mars in the next decade.
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