Investigating life below the surface of Mars

After recent discoveries suggest the presence of water on the red planet, scientists look for life below the surface of Mars.

Researchers at the Center for Space Science at NYU Abu Dhabi suggest that the traces of water found on the red planet could indicate a potential life-supporting environment below the surface of Mars.

Although no life has been detected on the surface, a new study from Dimitra Atri, an astrophysicist at NYU Abu Dhabi, suggests that conditions below the surface of Mars could potentially support life. According to Atri, the steady bombardment of penetrating Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs) might provide the energy needed to catalyse organic activity below the surface of Mars.

Atri’s findings are reported in the study ‘Investigating the biological potential of galactic cosmic ray-induced radiation-driven chemical disequilibrium in the Martian subsurface environment’ in the journal Scientific Reports.

Ancient life on Mars

There is growing evidence suggesting the presence of a water-based environment on ancient Mars, raising the question of the possibility of a life-supporting environment. The erosion of the Martian atmosphere resulted in drastic changes in its climate, causing surface water to disappear and reducing the habitable spaces on the planet.

The subsurface of Mars has traces of water in the form of water-ice and brines. Using a combination of numerical models, space mission data, and studies of deep-cave ecosystems on Earth for his research, Atri proposes mechanisms through which life, if it ever existed on Mars, could survive and be detected with the upcoming ExoMars mission in 2022 by the European Space Agency and Roscosmos.

“It is exciting to contemplate that life could survive in such a harsh environment, as few as two meters below the surface of Mars,” said Atri. “When the Rosalind Franklin rover on board the ExoMars mission (ESA and Roscosmos), 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.”

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