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occurs when radioactive elements within rocks react with water trapped in pore and fracture space. The reaction breaks water molecules into their constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The liberated hydrogen is dissolved in the remaining groundwater, while minerals like pyrite (fool’s gold) soak up free oxygen to form sulfate minerals. Microbes can ingest the dissolved hydrogen as fuel and use the oxygen preserved in the sulfates to “burn” that fuel.
New research suggests that rocks in the Martian crust could produce the same kind of chemical energy that supports microbial life deep beneath Earth’s surface.
The study, published in the journal Astrobiology, looked at the chemical composition of Martian meteorites — rocks blasted off of the surface of Mars that eventually landed on Earth. The analysis determined that those rocks, if in consistent contact with water, would produce the chemical energy needed to support microbial communities similar to those that survive in the unlit depths of the Earth. Because these meteorites may be representative of vast swaths of the Martian crust, the findings suggest that much of the Mars subsurface could be habitable.
In recent decades, scientists have discovered that Earth’s depths are home to a vast biome that exists largely separated from the world above. Lacking sunlight, these creatures survive using the byproducts of chemical reactions produced when rocks come into contact with water.
For this new study, the researchers wanted to see if the ingredients for radiolysis-driven habitats could exist on Mars. They drew on data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and other orbiting spacecraft, as well as compositional data from a suite of Martian meteorites, which are representative of different parts of the planet’s crust.
The researchers were looking for the ingredients for radiolysis: radioactive elements like thorium, uranium and potassium; sulfide minerals that could be converted to sulfate; and rock units with adequate pore space to trap water. The study found that in several different types of Martian meteorites, all the ingredients are present in adequate abundances to support Earth-like habitats. This was particularly true for regolith breccias — meteorites sourced from crustal rocks more than 3.6 billion years old — which were found to have the highest potential for life support.
“The subsurface is one of the frontiers in Mars exploration,” Mustard said. “We’ve investigated the atmosphere, mapped the surface with different wavelengths of light and landed on the surface in half-a-dozen places, and that work continues to tell us so much about the planet’s past. But if we want to think about the possibility of present-day life, the subsurface is absolutely going to be where the action is.”