The Surface of Mars Is Even More Deadly Than We Thought

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When we send a spacecraft to Mars, we have to sterilize it heavily so we do not accidentally take Earth life with us. After all, we do not want to contaminate the surface of the Red Planet with our own life and possibly make a false detection in the future.

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However, a new study brings an intriguing idea. Published in the Scientific Reports, Jennifer Wadsworth and Charles Cockell of the University of Edinburgh say that the surface of Mars would basically not allow the cells to survive. This suggests that spacecraft contamination may not be a major problem.

In their study, they discovered that a compound called perchlorate could be activated on the surface of Mars by sunlight. This is important because this compound is lethal to bacteria when it is activated, and is abundant on Mars.

They made their discoveries by simulating the Martian environment in a laboratory. Using an anaerobic, oxygen-free chamber, they recreated the wavelengths of light on the surface of Mars. They then monitored the effect of perchlorates in this condition on a common contaminant found in a spacecraft, Bacillus subtilis.

Under conditions similar to the Martian soil, the cells died in a matter of minutes when the perchlorates were activated. This strongly suggests that the surface of Mars is even more toxic to life than we thought.

Even so, we are not allowed to explore some regions of Mars, called Special Regions, because we cannot technically sterilize rovers to a high enough degree to avoid any risk of contamination.

As for Martian life, do not be so discouraged. While it is unlikely that any life - microbial or otherwise - can survive on the surface, the planet still seems a viable bet. We still do not know to what extent active perchlorates can go. But it is likely that more than a few feet below the surface life can survive. [ IFLS ]
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