A team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has calculated that if there is liquid water on Mars, the planet could contain more oxygen than previously thought.
Model, published in Nature GeoScience could even theoretically exceed the levels needed to support simple aerobic life.
This theory contradicts what was previously thought about Mars as the presence of liquid water on the red planet is not given. Although there were such, researchers have long dismissed the idea that they could be enriched with oxygen, since the Martian atmosphere is about 160 times thinner than that of the Earth and is mainly carbon dioxide.
"Oxygen is an important component in determining the habitability of an environment, but it is relatively rare on Mars," said Woody Fischer, a professor of geobiology at Caltech and co-author of the findings.
"Nobody ever thought that the levels of dissolved oxygen for aerobic respiration could theoretically exist on Mars," adds Vlada Stamenković, lead author of the study.
In recent months, data from a European spacecraft have shown that liquid water could lie beneath a layer of ice at the Mars South Pole. It was also hypothesized that water could exist in salty subterranean pools since perchlorate salts were detected at various sites on Mars.
This is because salt lowers the freezing point of water, which means that water with perchlorate could potentially be in it. Stay liquid despite the freezing temperatures on Mars, where the summer nights at the equator are still down to -1
This hypothetical saltwater has interested Fischer and Stamenković. Oxygen enters the water from the atmosphere and diffuses into the liquid to maintain a balance between the water and the air. If salty water were close enough to the surface of the Martian soil, it could effectively absorb oxygen from the thin atmosphere.
To find out how much oxygen could be absorbed, researchers developed a chemical model that describes how oxygen dissolves salt water at sub-freezing temperatures of water. Then they studied the global climate of Mars and how it has changed in the last 20 million years. During this time, the inclination of the planet's axis changed and changed the regional climate.
The solubility and climate models together allowed researchers to conclude which regions of Mars are capable of maintaining high oxygen solubilities, both today and in the geologically recent past of the planet.
The team found that at sufficiently low temperatures and at temperatures that are low enough, an unexpectedly high amount of oxygen might exist in the water – a value several orders of magnitude above the threshold that is currently available for water aerobic respiration in the oceans is needed.
They also found that the locations of these regions have shifted when the slope of the Martian axis has changed in the last 20 years, millions of years. During this time, the highest oxygen solubilities have occurred within the last five million years.
The results could inform future missions to Mars by getting rovers better looking for signs of past or present habitable environments, Stamenković added.
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