Life-Sustaining Energy Maker Discovered Beneath Mars

(CN) — Though no sentient life has ever been detected on Mars, a New York University astrophysicist has found that conditions below the surface of the red planet could sustain life, according to a study released Tuesday.

Through Martian surface erosion, scientists have discovered massive underground deposits of ice, some at depths as shallow as one or two meters below the planet’s surface. But observable signs of life have remained elusive.

The Rosalind Franklin rover by European Space Agency and Roscosmos will drill two meters below the surface of Mars to search for signs of life. (Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi)

Dimitra Atri, astrophysicist and research scientist at the Center for Space Science at NYU Abu Dhabi, believes other life-sustaining elements exist in the planet’s never-explored subsurface, which is less harsh and also contains traces of water.

Atri investigated the impact that radiation from the cosmos would have on production of life-generating energy under the red planet’s exterior, a thermodynamic process called chemical disequilibrium.

Radiation from galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) could be a major catalyst for developing life-sustaining conditions on Mars, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports.

GCRs could penetrate the planet’s surface and help generate the metabolic energy needed to sustain organic life, the study said.

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos’ upcoming ExoMars mission might even be able to detect these life-sustaining elements, Atri said in a statement.

“It is exciting to contemplate that life could survive in such a harsh environment, as few as two meters below the surface of Mars,” Atri said. “When the Rosalind Franklin rover on board the ExoMars mission, equipped with a subsurface drill, is launched in 2022, it will be well-suited to detect extant microbial life and hopefully provide some important insights.”

Similar chemical and radiation environments on Earth produce energy used by various organisms, according to the study.

If life ever existed on Mars, it would have had to adapt to the bleak conditions, including high doses of radiation and low temperatures, the study said. 

The erosion of Mars’ atmosphere over time resulted in critical changes in its climate — such as the disappearance of its surface water.

Vanishing water supplies drastically shrunk the amount of habitable space on Mars, with only trace amounts of water remaining near the surface in the form of brines and ice deposits.

Those brines and subsurface water deposits undergo constant, radiation-driven redox chemistry— a transfer of electrons, the study said.

Combining space mission data with his observations on cave ecosystems on Earth, Atri used numerical modeling to determine that chemical reactions can generate metabolic energy for extant life.

Atri did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on his findings.

NASA administrators are holding the Martian landscape firmly in their sights, embarking on an ambitious plan to explore the red planet as no one has before.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program will launch its Perseverance rover and its companion drone helicopter Ingenuity to study the surface later this week.

China also launched a space probe to Mars last Thursday, marking its second attempt to land on the red planet.

An illustration of the radiation-induced habitable zone below the surface of Mars that researchers believe could sustain life. (Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi)
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