Breaking Antarctica's ice

Physorg.com - Over the course of the past decade, NASA spacecraft have identified several sites on Mars where conditions capable of supporting life existed in the past. One of the most promising of these sites, and a good candidate for a follow-up mission designed explicitly to look for signs of life, is the shallow subsurface at the Phoenix landing site in the arctic northern plains of Mars. Indeed, the region where Phoenix landed some scientists believe, may still be habitable today.

Over the course of the past decade, NASA spacecraft have identified several sites on Mars where conditions capable of supporting life existed in the past. One of the most promising of these sites, and a good candidate for a follow-up mission designed explicitly to look for signs of life, is the shallow subsurface at the Phoenix landing site in the arctic northern plains of Mars. Indeed, the region where Phoenix landed some scientists believe, may still be habitable today.

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Another team member, Andrew Jackson, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, will study perchlorate. Historically, Jackson’s research focus has been on terrestrial perchlorate, in particular its impact on the Earth’s ozone layer. On Earth perchlorate occurs primarily in very dry places, such as the Atacama Desert in Chile. It is known to exist in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, but no-one has yet studied its presence there.

In addition to shedding light on Earth’s climate, perchlorate, which was found in the soil at the Phoenix landing site, is important to understanding the possibility of life on Mars. Perchlorate acts as a strong anti-freeze, lowering the freezing point of water. “Most salts do this, but perchlorate is particularly good at it,” says Jackson. “If we can see that in Antarctica, if we can show this perchlorate is actually doing that,” Jackson says, “that’s really important for Mars,” where temperatures rarely get above the freezing point.

In addition, many terrestrial microbes can “breathe” perchlorate in place of oxygen. If perchlorate-respiring microbes are found living in tiny pockets of liquid water within Antarctica’s subsurface ice, perhaps the subsurface ice in the frozen northern plains of Mars could also be considered a viable habitat for present-day life.

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