by Rakshita Jaiswal
They say red signifies life. Life, however can be surprising in ways humans can’t even conjure up. Life according to NASA can be elucidated as "a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. While this explanation is broad enough to embrace a wide range of potential life forms, it also makes it inflexible to design a simple test for ‘life’. Moreover, life on Earth can be defined as the condition that distinguishes microorganism and macro-organisms from inorganic matter, encompassing the capacity for reproduction, growth, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. However scientists continue to delve into the theories of life they constructively hold as they draft missions to seek extra-terrain life.
So, what about the red planet? Being a rocky surfaced planet with volcanoes, canyons, craters and dry lake beds all over, Mars comprises of a thinner atmosphere when compared to Earth, but also a tremendous amount of Carbon dioxide! The atmosphere of the red planet contains more than 95% of CO2 and less than 1% of oxygen; and the fact that some of the Martian surface is more than 3.5 billion years old ushers us to the favourite question of all times- can life evolve and thrive on Mars?
If we talk about life in terms of Earth, the most essential condition for a life to thrive in an environment is water, and while life without the precious liquid could be possible, it makes it easier for humans to search for conditions that are known to be optimal, rather than conditions we suppose could be. Evidences for water on the dry planet have however unrolled ways for us to look for signs of life forms that could thrive on the planet. Scientists within this Martian environment, discovered that nitrogen and argon follow a predictable pattern of seasons on the planet. Even though Oxygen showed patterns beyond their predictions. The amount of oxygen varied in the atmosphere, implying that it was being produced by something and then taken away by it. This discovery brought various ideas along with it. The presence of oxygen and methane has made us curious about the fact that both of these gases can be produced both biologically and geologically.
Another idea that brought us closer to our favorite question is the conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen on the red planet, directly from its atmosphere. In its ‘Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment’, NASA has paved a way for future human space exploration missions by demonstrating that the future explorers from the Martian atmosphere might produce oxygen for breathing and for propellant. Some studies can even be used for direct extraction of molecular oxygen from the Martian atmosphere based on liquefaction of the majority component, CO2, followed by separation of the lower-boiling components.
Surprisingly, Mars could even potentially provide some useful resources for fuels and also a breathing support system for humans! A device that decomposes water by using electricity could be used to transform brines on Mars into a hydrogen fuel supply and also life-supporting oxygen.
Another, one of the most important discoveries on Mars is about perchlorate. Perchlorates are toxic, hazardous molecules found in the Martian soil acting as great potential resources for both water and oxygen. It is so deliquescent that it can suck water out that is released when perchlorate is heated to ~200 °C, from the Martian atmosphere. It can also be a good source of O2 for human consumption.
Astronomy and astrobiology have reached great heights with the idea of possibilities of life on Mars and are looking forward to the first human space exploration to our only red planet. However, the need to save our mother planet still remains the need of the hour!