Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Mars' Water Appears To Have Been Too Salty To Support Life

Date:
May 30, 2008
Source:
Harvard University
Summary:
A new analysis of the Martian rock that gave hints of water on the Red Planet -- and, therefore, optimism about the prospect of life -- now suggests the water was more likely a thick brine, far too salty to support life as we know it.

A new analysis of the Martian rock that gave hints of water on the Red Planet -- and, therefore, optimism about the prospect of life -- now suggests the water was more likely a thick brine, far too salty to support life as we know it.
Credit: NASA, J. Bell (Cornell U.) and M. Wolff (SSI)

A new analysis of the Martian rock that gave hints of water on the Red Planet -- and, therefore, optimism about the prospect of life -- now suggests the water was more likely a thick brine, far too salty to support life as we know it.

The finding, by scientists at Harvard University and Stony Brook University, is detailed May 30 in the journal Science.

"Liquid water is required by all species on Earth and we've assumed that water is the very least that would be necessary for life on Mars," says Nicholas J. Tosca, a postdoctoral researcher in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. "However, to really assess Mars' habitability we need to consider the properties of its water. Not all of Earth's waters are able to support life, and the limits of terrestrial life are sharply defined by water's temperature, acidity, and salinity."

Together with co-authors Andrew H. Knoll and Scott M. McLennan, Tosca analyzed salt deposits in four-billion-year-old Martian rock explored by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, and by orbiting spacecraft. It was the Mars Rover whose reports back to Earth stoked excitement over water on the ancient surface of the Red Planet.

The new analysis suggests that even billions of years ago, when there was unquestionably some water on Mars, its salinity commonly exceeded the levels in which terrestrial life can arise, survive, or thrive.

"Our sense has been that while Mars is a lousy environment for supporting life today, long ago it might have more closely resembled Earth," says Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural Sciences and professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard. "But this result suggests quite strongly that even as long as four billion years ago, the surface of Mars would have been challenging for life. No matter how far back we peer into Mars' history, we may never see a point at which the planet really looked like Earth."

Tosca, Knoll, and McLennan studied mineral deposits in Martian rock to calculate the "water activity" of the water that once existed on Mars. Water activity is a quantity affected by how much solute is dissolved in water; since water molecules continuously adhere to and surround solute molecules, water activity reflects the amount of water that remains available for biological processes.

The water activity of pure water is 1.0, where all of its molecules are unaffected by dissolved solute and free to mediate biological processes. Terrestrial seawater has a water activity of 0.98. Decades of research, largely from the food industry, have shown that few known organisms can grow when water activity falls below 0.9, and very few can survive below 0.85.

Based on the chemical composition of salts that precipitated out of ancient Martian waters, Tosca and his colleagues project that the water activity of Martian water was at most 0.78 to 0.86, and quite possibly reaching below 0.5 as evaporation continued to concentrate the brines, making it an environment uninhabitable by terrestrial species.

"This doesn't rule out life forms of a type we've never encountered," Knoll says, "but life that could originate and persist in such a salty setting would require biochemistry distinct from any known among even the most robust halophiles on Earth."

The scientists say that the handful of terrestrial halophiles -- species that can tolerate high salinity -- descended from ancestors that first evolved in purer waters. Based on what we know about Earth, they say that it's difficult to imagine life arising in acidic, oxidizing brines like those inferred for ancient Mars.

"People have known for hundreds of years that salt prevents microbial growth," Tosca says. "It's why meat was salted in the days before refrigeration."

Tosca and Knoll say it's possible there may have been more dilute waters earlier in Mars' history, or elsewhere on the planet. However, the area whose rocks they studied -- called Meridiani Planum -- is believed, based on Mars Rover data, to have been one of the wetter, more hospitable areas of ancient Mars.

Tosca, Knoll, and McLennan's work was supported by NASA and the Harvard Origins of Life Project.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Harvard University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Nicholas J. Tosca, Andrew H. Knoll, and Scott M. McLennan. Water Activity and the Challenge for Life on Early Mars. Science, 2008; 320 (5880): 1204 DOI: 10.1126/science.1155432

Cite This Page:

Harvard University. "Mars' Water Appears To Have Been Too Salty To Support Life." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 May 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080529141404.htm>.
Harvard University. (2008, May 30). Mars' Water Appears To Have Been Too Salty To Support Life. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 16, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080529141404.htm
Harvard University. "Mars' Water Appears To Have Been Too Salty To Support Life." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080529141404.htm (accessed September 16, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

Newsy (Sep. 16, 2014) — Numerous residents along the East Coast reported seeing a bright meteor flash through the sky Sunday night. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Reuters - Business Video Online (Sep. 16, 2014) — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' startup will team up with Boeing and Lockheed to develop rocket engines as Elon Musk races to have his rockets certified. Fred Katayama reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finally Reaches Long-Term Goal

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finally Reaches Long-Term Goal

Newsy (Sep. 15, 2014) — After more than two years, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover reached Mount Sharp, its long-term destination. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
SpaceX's Elon Musk Really Wants To Colonize Mars

SpaceX's Elon Musk Really Wants To Colonize Mars

Newsy (Sep. 14, 2014) — Elon Musk has been talking about his goal of colonizing Mars for years now, but how much of it does he actually have figured out, and is it possible? Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

    Environment News

      Technology News



      Save/Print:
      Share:  

      Free Subscriptions


      Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

      Get Social & Mobile


      Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

      Have Feedback?


      Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
      Mobile iPhone Android Web
      Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
      Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
      Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins