Simple animals could live in Martian brines: Wikinews interviews planetary scientist Vlada Stamenković

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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Planetary scientist Vlada Stamenković of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and colleagues have developed a new chemical model of how oxygen dissolves in Martian conditions, which raises the possibility of oxygen-rich brines; enough, the work suggests, to support simple animals such as sponges. The model was published in Nature on October 22. Wikinews caught up with him in an email interview to find out more about his team's research and their plans for the future.

Dr. Vlada Stamenković
Image: JPL.

The atmosphere of Mars is far too thin for humans to breathe or for lungs like ours to extract any oxygen at all. It has on average only around 0.6% of the pressure of Earth's atmosphere, and this is mainly carbon dioxide; only 0.145% of the thin Martian atmosphere is oxygen. The new model indicated these minute traces of oxygen should be able to enter salty seeps of water on or near the planet's surface at levels high enough to support life forms comparable to Earth's microbes, possibly even simple sponges. Some life forms can survive without oxygen, but oxygen permits more energy-intensive metabolism. Almost all complex multicellular life on Earth depends on oxygen.

"We were absolutely flabbergasted [...] I went back to recalculate everything like five different times to make sure it's a real thing," Stamenković told National Geographic.

"Our work is calling for a complete revision for how we think about the potential for life on Mars, and the work oxygen can do," he told Scientific American, "implying that if life ever existed on Mars it might have been breathing oxygen".

File photo of Halichondria panicea, or the breadcrumb sponge, a simple sponge with low oxygen requirements.
Image: Minette Layne (flickr).

Stamenković et al cite research from 2014 showing some simple sponges can survive with only 0.002 moles of oxygen per cubic meter (0.064 mg per liter). Some microbes that need oxygen can survive with as little as a millionth of a mole per cubic meter (0.000032 mg per liter). In their model, they found there can be enough oxygen for microbes throughout Mars, and enough for simple sponges in oases near the poles.

In 2014, also suggesting multicellular life could exist on Mars, de Vera et al, using the facilities at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), studied some lichens, including Pleopsidium chlorophanum, which can grow high up in Antarctic mountain ranges. They showed those lichens can also survive and even grow in Mars simulation chambers. The lichens can do this because their algal component is able to produce the oxygen needed by the fungal component. Stamenković et al's research provides a way for oxygen to get into the Martian brines without algae or photosynthesis.

Stamenković et al found oxygen levels throughout Mars would be high enough for the least demanding aerobic (oxygen-using) microbes, for all the brines they considered, and all the methods of calculation. They published a detailed map[3] of the distributions of solubility for calcium perchlorates for their more optimistic calculations, which they reckoned were closer to the true case, with and without supercooling. The lowest concentrations were shown in the tropical southern uplands. Brine in regions poleward of about 67.5° to the north and about 72.5° to the south could have oxygen concentrations high enough for simple sponges. Closer to the poles, concentrations could go higher, approaching levels typical of sea water on Earth, 0.2 moles per cubic meter (6.4 mg per liter), for calcium perchlorates. On Earth, worms and clams that live in the muddy sea beds require 1 mg per liter, bottom feeders such as crabs and oysters 3 mg per liter, and spawning migratory fish 6 mg per liter, all within 0.2 moles per cubic meter, 6.4 mg per liter.

Wikinews waves Left.png((WikinewsWikinews waves Right.png)) Does your paper's value of up to 0.2 moles of oxygen per cubic meter, the same as Earth's sea water, mean that there could potentially be life on Mars as active as our sea worms or even fish?
Stamenković: Mars is such a different place than the Earth and we still need to do so much more work before we can even start to speculate.

Stamenković et al studied magnesium and calcium perchlorates, common on Mars. They found the highest oxygen concentrations occur when the water is colder, which happens most in polar regions.

Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) The temperatures for the highest levels of oxygen are really low, -133 °C, so, is the idea that this oxygen would be retained when the brines warm up to more habitable temperatures during the day or seasonally? Or would the oxygen be lost as it warms up? Or — is the idea that it has to be some exotic biochemistry that works only at ultra low temperatures like Dirk Schulze-Makuch's life based on hydrogen peroxide and perchlorates internal to the cells as antifreeze?
Stamenković: The options are both: first, cool oxygen-rich environments do not need to be habitats. They could be reservoirs packed with a necessary nutrient that can be accessed from a deeper and warmer region. Second, the major reason for limiting life at low temperature is ice nucleation, which would not occur in the type of brines that we study.
Varying tilt of Mars's axis over hundreds of thousands to millions of years. The current situation is a 25-degree tilt (top left).
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Stamenković et al's paper is theoretical and is based on a simplified general circulation model of the Mars atmosphere — it ignores distinctions of seasons and the day / night cycle. Stamenković's team combined it with a chemical model of how oxygen would dissolve in the brines and used this to predict oxygen levels in such brines at various locations on Mars.

When asked about plans for a future model that might include seasonal timescales, Stamenković told Wikinews, "Yes, we are now exploring the kinetics part and want to see what happens on shorter timescales."

Stamenković et al's model also takes account of the tilt of the Mars axis, which varies much more than Earth's does.

Wikinews asked Stamenković if he had any ideas about whether and how sponges could survive through times when the tilt was higher and less oxygen would be available:

Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) I notice from your figure[4] that there is enough oxygen for sponges only at tilts of about 45 degrees or less. Do you have any thoughts about how sponges could survive periods of time in the distant past when the Mars axial tilt exceeds 45 degrees, for instance, might there be subsurface oxygen-rich oases in caves that recolonize the surface? Also what is the exact figure for the tilt at which oxygen levels sufficient for sponges become possible? (It looks like about 45 degrees from the figure but the paper doesn't seem to give a figure for this.)
Stamenković: 45 deg is approx. the correct degree. We were also tempted to speculate about this temporal driver but realized that we still know so little about the potential for life on Mars/principles of life that anything related to this question would be pure speculation, unfortunately.
Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) How quickly would the oxygen get into the brines — did you investigate the timescale?
Stamenković: No, we did not yet study the dynamics. We first needed to show that the potential is there. We are now studying the timescales and processes.
Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) Could the brines that Nilton Renno and his teams simulated, forming on salt/ice interfaces within minutes in Mars simulation conditions, get oxygenated in the process of formation? If not, how long would it take for them to get oxygenated to levels sufficient for aerobic microbes? For instance could the Phoenix leg droplets have taken up enough oxygen for aerobic respiration by microbes?
Stamenković: Just like the answer above. Dynamics is still to be explored. (But this is a really good question 😉).

Wikinews also asked Stamenković how their research is linked to the recent discovery of possible large subglacial lake below the Martian South Pole found through radar mapping.

Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) Some news stories coupled your research with the subglacial lakes announcement earlier this year. Could the oxygen get through ice into layers of brines such as the possible subglacial lakes at a depth of 1.5 km?
Stamenković: There are other ways to create oxygen. Radiolysis of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen can liberate oxygen in the deep and that O2 could be dissolved in deep groundwater. The radiolytic power for this would come from radionuclides naturally contained in rocks, something we observe in diverse regions on Earth.
Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) And I'd also like to know about your experiment you want to send to Mars to help with the search for these oxygenated brines.
Stamenković: We are now developing at "NASA/JPL-California Institute of Technology" a small tool, called TH2OR (Transmissive H2O Reconnaissance) that might one day fly with a yet-to-be-determined mission. It will use low frequency sounding techniques, capable of detecting groundwater at depths down to ideally a few km under the Martian surface, thanks to the high electric conductivity of only slightly salty water and Faraday's law of induction. Most likely, such a small and affordable instrument could be placed stationary on the planet’s surface or be carried passively or actively on mobile surface assets; TH2OR might be also used in combination with existing orbiting assets to increase its sounding depth. Next to determining the depth of groundwater, we should also be able to estimate its salinity and indirectly its potential chemistry, which is critical information for astrobiology and ISRU (in situ resource utilization).
Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) Does your TH2OR use TDEM like the Mars 94 mission — and will it use natural ULF sources such as solar wind, diurnal variations in ionosphere heating and lightning?
Stamenković: The physical principle it uses is the same and this has been used for groundwater detection on the Earth for many decades; it’s Faraday’s law of induction in media that are electrically conducting (as slightly saline water is).
Stamenković: However, we will focus on creating our own signal as we do not know whether the EM fields needed for such measurements exist on Mars. However, we will also account for the possibility of already existing fields.


Sources

Wikinews
This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.
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