Life on Mars can Survive for Millions of Years Even Right Near the Surface

Mars is not exactly a friendly place for life as we know it. While temperatures at the equator can reach as high as a balmy 35 °C (95 °F) in the summer at midday, the average temperature on the surface is -63 °C (-82 °F), and can reach as low as -143 °C (-226 °F) during winter in the polar regions. Its atmospheric pressure is about one-half of one percent of Earth’s, and the surface is exposed to a considerable amount of radiation.

Until now, no one was certain if microorganisms could survive in this extreme environment. But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers from the Lomonosov Moscow State University (LMSU), we may now be able to place constraints on what kinds of conditions microorganisms can withstand. This study could therefore have significant implications in the hunt for life elsewhere in the Solar System, and maybe even beyond!

The study, titled “100 kGy gamma-affected microbial communities within the ancient Arctic permafrost under simulated Martian conditions“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Extremophiles. The research team, which was led by Vladimir S. Cheptsov of LMSU, included members from the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University, the Kurchatov Institute and Ural Federal University.

Image taken by the Viking 1 orbiter in June 1976, showing Mars thin atmosphere and dusty, red surface. Credits: NASA/Viking 1

For the sake of their study, the research team hypothesized that temperature and pressure conditions would not be the mitigating factors, but rather radiation. As such, they conducted tests where microbial communities contained within simulated Martian regolith were then irradiated. The simulated regolith consisted of sedimentary rocks that contained permafrost, which were then subjected to low temperature and low pressure conditions.

As Vladimir S. Cheptsov, a post-graduate student at the Lomonosov MSU Department of Soil Biology and a co-author on the paper, explained in a LMSU press statement:

“We have studied the joint impact of a number of physical factors (gamma radiation, low pressure, low temperature) on the microbial communities within ancient Arctic permafrost. We also studied a unique nature-made object—the ancient permafrost that has not melted for about 2 million years. In a nutshell, we have conducted a simulation experiment that covered the conditions of cryo-conservation in Martian regolith. It is also important that in this paper, we studied the effect of high doses (100 kGy) of gamma radiation on prokaryotes’ vitality, while in previous studies no living prokaryotes were ever found after doses higher than 80 kGy.”

To simulate Martian conditions, the team used an original constant climate chamber, which maintained the low temperature and atmospheric pressure. They then exposed the microorganisms to varying levels of gamma radiation. What they found was that the microbial communities showed high resistance to the temperature and pressure conditions in the simulated Martian environment.

Spirit Embedded in Soft Soil on Mars
Image of Martian soils, where the Spirit mission embedded itself. Credit: NASA/JPL

However, after they began irradiating the microbes, they noticed several differences between the irradiated sample and the control sample. Whereas the total count of prokaryotic cells and the number of metabolically active bacterial cells remained consistent with control levels, the number of irradiated bacteria decreased by two orders of magnitude while the number of metabolically active cells of archaea also decreased threefold.

The team also noticed that within the exposed sample of permafrost, there was a high biodiversity of bacteria, and this bacteria underwent a significant structural change after it was irradiated. For instance, populations of actinobacteria like Arthrobacter – a common genus found in soil – were not present in the control samples, but became predominant in the bacterial communities that were exposed.

In short, these results indicated that microorganisms on Mars are more survivable than previously thought. In addition to being able to survive the cold temperatures and low atmospheric pressure, they are also capable of surviving the kinds of radiation conditions that are common on the surface. As Cheptsov explained:

“The results of the study indicate the possibility of prolonged cryo-conservation of viable microorganisms in the Martian regolith. The intensity of ionizing radiation on the surface of Mars is 0.05-0.076 Gy/year and decreases with depth. Taking into account the intensity of radiation in the Mars regolith, the data obtained makes it possible to assume that hypothetical Mars ecosystems could be conserved in an anabiotic state in the surface layer of regolith (protected from UV rays) for at least 1.3 million years, at a depth of two meters for no less than 3.3 million years, and at a depth of five meters for at least 20 million years. The data obtained can also be applied to assess the possibility of detecting viable microorganisms on other objects of the solar system and within small bodies in outer space.”

Future missions could determine the presence of past life on Mars by looking for signs of extreme bacteria. Credit: NASA.

This study was significant for multiple reasons. On the one hand, the authors were able to prove for the first time that prokaryote bacteria can survive radiation does in excess of 80 kGy – something which was previously thought to be impossible. They also demonstrated that despite its tough conditions, microorganisms could still be alive on Mars today, preserved in its permafrost and soil.

The study also demonstrates the importance of considering both extraterrestrial and cosmic factors when considering where and under what conditions living organisms can survive. Last, but not least, this study has done something no previous study has, which is define the limits of radiation resistance for microorganisms on Mars – specifically within regolith and at various depths.

This information will be invaluable for future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System, and perhaps even with the study of exoplanets. Knowing the kind of conditions in which life will thrive will help us to determine where to look for signs of it. And when preparing missions to other words, it will also let scientists know what locations to avoid so that contamination of indigenous ecosystems can be prevented.

Further Reading: Lomonsonov Moscow State University, Extremophiles

Some Earth Life is Ready to Live on Mars, Right Now

For some time, scientists have suspected that life may have existed on Mars in the deep past. Owing to the presence of a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on its surface, it is entirely possible that the simplest of organisms might have begun to evolve there. And for those looking to make Mars a home for humanity someday, it is hoped that these conditions (i.e favorable to life) could be recreated again someday.

But as it turns out, there are some terrestrial organisms that could survive on Mars as it is today. According to a recent study by a team of researchers from the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences (ACSPS) at the University of Arkansas, four species of methanogenic microorganisms have shown that they could withstand one of the most severe conditions on Mars, which is its low-pressure atmosphere.

The study, titled “Low Pressure Tolerance by Methanogens in an Aqueous Environment: Implications for Subsurface Life on Mars,” was recently published in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. According to the study, the team tested the survivability of four different types of methanogens to see how they would survive in an environment analogous to the subsurface of Mars.

Methanogenic organisms that were found in samples of deep volcanic rocks along the Columbia River and in Idaho Falls. Credit: NASA

To put it simply, Methanogens are ancient group of organisms that are classified as archaea, a species of microorganism that do not require oxygen and can therefore survive in what we consider to be “extreme environments”. On Earth, methanogens are common in wetlands, ocean environments, and even in the digestive tracts of animals, where they consume hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce methane as a metabolic byproduct.

And as several NASA missions have shown, methane has also been found in the atmosphere of Mars. While the source of this methane has not yet been determined, it has been argued that it could be produced by methanogens living beneath the surface. As Rebecca Mickol, an astrobiologist at the ACSPS and the lead author of the study, explained:

“One of the exciting moments for me was the detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere. On Earth, most methane is produced biologically by past or present organisms. The same could possibly be true for Mars. Of course, there are a lot of possible alternatives to the methane on Mars and it is still considered controversial. But that just adds to the excitement.”

As part of the ongoing effort to understand the Martian environment, scientists have spent the past 20 years studying if four specific strains of methanogen – Methanothermobacter wolfeii, Methanosarcina barkeri, Methanobacterium formicicum, Methanococcus maripaludis – can survive on Mars. While it is clear that they could endure the low-oxygen and radiation (if underground), there is still the matter of the extremely low air-pressure.

Graduate students Rebecca Mickol and Navita Sinha prepare to load methanogens into the Pegasus Chamber housed in W.M. Keck Laboratory. Credit: University of Arkansas

With help from the NASA Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology Program (part of NASA’s Astrobiology Program), which issued them a three-year grant back in 2012, Mickol and her team took a new approach to testing these methanogens. This included placing them in a series of test tubes and adding dirt and fluids to simulate underground aquifers. They then fed the samples hydrogen as a fuel source and deprived them of oxygen.

The next step was subjecting the microorganisms to pressure conditions analogues to Mars to see how they might hold up. For this, they relied on the Pegasus Chamber, an instrument operated by the ACSPS in their W.M. Keck Laboratory for Planetary Simulations. What they found was that the methanogens all survived exposure to pressures of 6 to 143 millibars for periods of between 3 and 21 days.

This study shows that certain species of microorganisms are not dependent on a the presence of a dense atmosphere for their survival. It also shows that these particular species of methanogens could withstand periodic contact with the Martian atmosphere. This all bodes well for the theories that Martian methane is being produced organically – possibly in subsurface, wet environments.

This is especially good news in light of evidence provided by NASA’s HiRISE instrument concerning Mars’ recurring slope lineae, which pointed towards a possible connection between liquid water columns on the surface and deeper levels in the subsurface. If this should prove to be the case, then organisms being transported in the water column would be able to withstand the changing pressures during transport.

The possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere, ranging from subsurface microbes and weathering of rock and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

The next step, according to Mickol is to see how these organisms can stand up to temperature. “Mars is very, very cold,” she said, “often getting down to -100ºC (-212ºF) at night, and sometimes, on the warmest day of the year, at noon, the temperature can rise above freezing. We’d run our experiments just above freezing, but the cold temperature would limit evaporation of the liquid media and it would create a more Mars-like environment.”

Scientists have suspected for some time that life may still be found on Mars, hiding in recesses and holes that we have yet to peek into. Research that confirms that it can indeed exist under Mars’ present (and severe) conditions is most helpful, in that it allows us to narrow down that search considerably.

In the coming years, and with the deployment of additional Mars missions – like NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander, which is scheduled for launch in May of next year – we will be able to probe deeper into the Red Planet. And with sample return missions on the horizon – like the Mars 2020 rover – we may at last find some direct evidence of life on Mars!

Further Reading: Astrobiology Magazine, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

How Bad is the Radiation on Mars?

Human exploration of Mars has been ramping up in the past few decades. In addition to the eight active missions on or around the Red Planet, seven more robotic landers, rovers and orbiters are scheduled to be deployed there by the end of the decade. And by the 2030s and after, several space agencies are planning to mount crewed missions to the surface as well.

On top of that, there are even plenty of volunteers who are prepared to make a one-way journey to Mars, and people advocating that we turn it into a second home. All of these proposals have focused attention on the peculiar hazards that come with sending human beings to Mars. Aside from its cold, dry environment, lack of air, and huge sandstorms, there’s also the matter of its radiation.

Causes:

Mars has no protective magnetosphere, as Earth does. Scientists believe that at one time, Mars also experienced convection currents in its core, creating a dynamo effect that powered a planetary magnetic field. However, roughly 4.2 billions year ago – either due to a massive impact from a large object, or rapid cooling in its core – this dynamo effect ceased.

Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet's upper atmosphere. Credits: NASA/GSFC
Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. Credits: NASA/GSFC

As a result, over the course of the next 500 million years, Mars atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind. Between the loss of its magnetic field and its atmosphere, the surface of Mars is exposed to much higher levels of radiation than Earth. And in addition to regular exposure to cosmic rays and solar wind, it receives occasional lethal blasts that occur with strong solar flares.

Investigations:

NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft was equipped with a special instrument called the Martian Radiation Experiment (or MARIE), which was designed to measure the radiation environment around Mars. Since Mars has such a thin atmosphere, radiation detected by Mars Odyssey would be roughly the same as on the surface.

Over the course of about 18 months, the Mars Odyssey probe detected ongoing radiation levels which are 2.5 times higher than what astronauts experience on the International Space Station – 22 millirads per day, which works out to 8000 millirads (8 rads) per year. The spacecraft also detected 2 solar proton events, where radiation levels peaked at about 2,000 millirads in a day, and a few other events that got up to about 100 millirads.

For comparison, human beings in developed nations are exposed to (on average) 0.62 rads per year. And while studies have shown that the human body can withstand a dose of up to 200 rads without permanent damage, prolonged exposure to the kinds of levels detected on Mars could lead to all kinds of health problems – like acute radiation sickness, increased risk of cancer, genetic damage, and even death.

Diagram showing the amount of cosmic radiation the surface of Mars is exposed to. Credit: NASA
Diagram showing the amount of cosmic radiation the surface of Mars is exposed to. Credit: NASA

And given that exposure to any amount of radiation carries with it some degree of risk, NASA and other space agencies maintain a strict policy of ALARA (As-Low-As-Reasonable-Achievable) when planning missions.

Possible Solutions:

Human explorers to Mars will definitely need to deal with the increased radiation levels on the surface. What’s more, any attempts to colonize the Red Planet will also require measures to ensure that exposure to radiation is minimized. Already, several solutions – both short term and long- have been proposed to address this problem.

For example, NASA maintains multiple satellites that study the Sun, the space environment throughout the Solar System, and monitor for galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of solar and cosmic radiation. They’ve also been looking for ways to develop better shielding for astronauts and electronics.

In 2014, NASA launched the Reducing Galactic Cosmic Rays Challenge, an incentive-based competition that awarded a total of $12,000 to ideas on how to reduce astronauts’ exposure to galactic cosmic rays. After the initial challenge in April of 2014, a follow-up challenge took place in July that awarded a prize of $30,000 for ideas involving active and passive protection.

When it comes to long-term stays and colonization, several more ideas have been floated in the past. For instance, as Robert Zubrin and David Baker explained in their proposal for a low-cast “Mars Direct” mission, habitats built directly into the ground would be naturally shielded against radiation. Zubrin expanded on this in his 1996 book The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.

Proposals have also been made to build  habitats above-ground using inflatable modules encased in ceramics created using Martian soil. Similar to what has been proposed by both NASA and the ESA for a settlement on the Moon, this plan would rely heavily on robots using 3D printing technique known as “sintering“, where sand is turned into a molten material using x-rays.

MarsOne, the non-profit organization dedicated to colonizing Mars in the coming decades, also has proposals for how to shield Martian settlers. Addressing the issue of radiation, the organization has proposed building shielding into the mission’s spacecraft, transit vehicle, and habitation module. In the event of a solar flare, where this protection is insufficient, they advocate creating a dedicated radiation shelter (located in a hollow water tank) inside their Mars Transit Habitat.

But perhaps the most radical proposal for reducing Mars’ exposure to harmful radiation involves jump-starting the planet’s core to restore its magnetosphere. To do this, we would need to liquefy the planet’s outer core so that it can convect around the inner core once again. The planet’s own rotation would begin to create a dynamo effect, and a magnetic field would be generated.

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

According to Sam Factor, a graduate student with the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas, there are two ways to do this. The first would be to detonate a series of thermonuclear warheads near the planet’s core, while the second involves running an electric current through the planet, producing resistance at the core which would heat it up.

In addition, a 2008 study conducted by researchers from the National Institute for Fusion Science (NIFS) in Japan addressed the possibility of creating an artificial magnetic field around Earth. After considering continuous measurements that indicated a 10% drop in intensity in the past 150 years, they went on to advocate how a series of planet-encircling superconducting rings could compensate for future losses.

With some adjustments, such a system could be adapted for Mars, creating an artificial magnetic field that could help shield the surface from some of the harmful radiation it regularly receives. In the event that terraformers attempt to create an atmosphere for Mars, this system could also ensure that it is protected from solar wind.

Lastly, a study in 2007 by researchers from the Institute for Mineralogy and Petrology in Switzerland and the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences at Vrije University in Amsterdam managed to replicate what Mars’ core looks like. Using a diamond chamber, the team was able to replicate pressure conditions on iron-sulfur and iron-nickel-sulfur systems that correspond to the center of Mars.

What they found was that at the temperatures expected in the Martian core (~1500 K, or 1227 °C; 2240 °F), the inner core would be liquid, but some solidification would occur in the outer core. This is quite different from Earth’s core, where the solidification of the inner core releases heat that keeps the outer core molten, thus creating the dynamo effect that powers our magnetic field.

The absence of a solid inner core on Mars would mean that the once-liquid outer core must have had a different energy source. Naturally, that heat source has since failed, causing the outer core to solidify, thus arresting any dynamo effect. However, their research also showed that planetary cooling could lead to core solidification in the future, either due to iron-rich solids sinking towards the center or iron-sulfides crystallizing in the core.

In other words, Mars’ core might become solid someday, which would heat the outer core and turn it molten. Combined with the planet’s own rotation, this would generate the dynamo effect that would once again fire up the planet’s magnetic field. If this is true, then colonizing Mars and living there safely could be a simple matter of waiting for the core to crystallize.

There’s no way around it. At present, the radiation on the surface of Mars is pretty hazardous! Therefore, any crewed missions to the planet in the future will need to take into account radiation shielding and counter-measures. And any long-term stays there – at least for the foreseeable future – are going to have to be built into the ground, or hardened against solar and cosmic rays.

Approximate true-color rendering of the central part of the "Columbia Hills", taken by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit panoramic camera. Credit: NASA/JPL
Approximate true-color rendering of the central part of the “Columbia Hills”, taken by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit panoramic camera. Credit: NASA/JPL

But you know what they say about necessity being the mother of invention, right? And with such luminaries as Stephen Hawking saying that we need to start colonizing other worlds in order to survive as a species, and people like Elon Musk and Bas Lansdrop looking to make it happen, we’re sure to see some very inventive solutions in the coming generations!

We have written many interesting articles about Mars and the dangers of radiation here at Universe Today. Here’s How Much Radiation Would You Get During A Mars Mission?, How Can We Live on Mars?, Human Voyages to Mars Pose Higher Cancer Risks, and Radiation Sickness, Cellular Damage and Increased Cancer Risk for Long-term Missions to Mars.

If you want, learn more about the MARIE instrument on board NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, and the radiation risks humans will face trying to go to Mars.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Red Planet at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

Sources:

 

What Is Mars Atmosphere Made Of

What is Mars Atmosphere Made Of

[/caption]I think that one of the most interesting questions that have been posed of late is ‘what is Mar’s atmosphere made of?’ There has been a great deal of study done on this topic and interest is increasing since the discovery of methane, a possible indicator of life.

The atmosphere of Mars is over 95% carbon dioxide, 95.32% to be exact. The breakdown of gases goes like this:

  • Carbon dioxide 95.32%
  • Nitrogen 2.7%
  • Argon 1.6%
  • Oxygen 0.13%
  • Carbon monoxide 0.07%
  • Water vapor 0.03%
  • Nitric oxide .0013%
  • Trace gases(including krypton, methane, etc)
  • The Martian atmosphere has four main layers: lower, middle, upper, and exosphere. The lower atmosphere is a warm region(around 210 K). It is warmed by airborne dust(1.5 micrometers across) and heat radiated from the surface. This airborne dust gives the planet its ruddy brown appearance. The middle atmosphere is features a jetstream similar to Earth’s. The upper atmosphere is heated by the solar wind and the temperatures are much higher than at the surface. This heat separates the gases. The exosphere starts at about 200 km and has no clear end. It just tapers off into space.

    The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere freezes for part of the year and may drop to the surface. As much as 25% of the atmospheric carbon dioxide condenses at the polar caps into solid ice(dry ice) because the Martian poles are not exposed to sunlight during the planet’s winter. When the poles are again exposed to sunlight, the ice returns to its gas form and rises back into the atmosphere. So, a significant annual variation in the atmospheric pressure and atmospheric composition around the Martian poles.

    The methane mentioned earlier is used to show the possibility of life on Mars. While it is a byproduct of life, it is also a result of volcanism, geothermal process, and hydrothermal activity. Methane is an unstable gas, so there has to be a source on the planet that is constantly replenishing it. It has to be a very active source, because studies have shown that the methane is destroyed in less than on Earth year. It is thought that peroxides and perchlorates in the soil or that it condenses and evaporates seasonally from clathrates.

    Now you answer ‘ what is Mar’s atmosphere made of?’ the next time it comes up. You can be sure that the methane component will continue to be studied by rovers, orbiters, and, in the future, astronauts.

    We have written many articles about the atmosphere of Mars for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the air on Mars, and here’s an article about Mars’ comparison with Earth.

    If you’d like more info on Mars, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Mars, and here’s a link to the NASA Mars Exploration home page.

    We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Mars. Listen here, Episode 52: Mars.

    Reference:
    NASA Mars Fact Sheet