Mars Brine Could Hold Enough Oxygen for Small Animals

10_22_Mars Surface
Mars's surface is depicted in this image. Researchers believe there might be enough oxygen for microbes and even simple animals like sea sponges to survive on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

Take a breath on Mars and you won't find much oxygen.Tiny whiffs are released when light breaks down carbon dioxide, but scientists have long thought these traces were far too small to sustain life.

But just beneath the surface, briny bodies of water might be able to cling on to enough oxygen, scientists reported Monday in the journal Nature Geosciences. Researchers believe there might be enough oxygen for microbes and even simple animals like sea sponges to survive.

To figure out how much oxygen briney fluid on the red planet might be able to hold, the team used sophisticated simulations of different pressure and temperature conditions to map potential oxygen-storing ability.

They discovered that salty water across the planet might to oxygen. Subsurface brine at the poles could host especially high concentrations of the element so crucial to life.

"Our work is calling for a complete revision for how we think about the potential for life on Mars, and the work oxygen can do, implying that if life ever existed on Mars it might have been breathing oxygen," lead study author Vlada Stamenkovi, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told Scientific American. "We have the potential now to understand the current habitability." Stamenkovi did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

Even if bodies of brine below the surface can hold on to oxygen, however, that doesn't mean they would be able to support life. The prospect of Martian sea sponges and microbes floating through dingy, briney lakes is certainly exciting, but many crucial factors remain unexplained.

Exactly how such brine might have formed, for example, is unknown. The liquid might be too salty to sustain life at all, planetary scientist Edgard Rivera-Valentin, who was not involved in the study, told Scientific American. "The types of brines that would form on Mars would kill [life]," he said.

Beyond sustaining life, the team believes its oxygen-rich brine could help explain certain rock formations spotted by rovers trundling along the surface of Mars. "Geochemical evidence from martian meteorites and manganese-rich rocks points to highly oxidizing aqueous environments on Mars in its past," the authors wrote. This suggests oxygen had an important role in shaping the Red Planet's crust, they added.

Briney martian water hit the headlines this summer, because scientists published evidence for a large body of liquid about a mile beneath the surface of the planet's southern polar ice caps. By investigating data from the European Space Agency's Mars Express probe, scientists discovered what's thought to be a 12.5 mile-wide lake measuring 3 feet deep or more.