Bad news for those hoping that the discovery of evidence of life on Mars was just around the corner: Mother Nature may have decided to try and clear up her own mess, with a new report suggesting that whatever evidence of life on the Red Planet may have existed has been eroded away by chemical reactions over time.
The discovery came while a team from Tufts University was studying the EETA 79001, a meteorite discovered in the Antarctic in 1979 that had apparently crashed into the Earth more than 12,000 years ago after originating on Mars. In the process, the team found chemicals so strong that any potential lifeforms might have been accidentally bleached away a long time ago. The amounts of chloride materials inside the meteorite may have formed oxychlorines on Mars which, if combined with water, would break down any organic compounds with which it came in contact.
This could cause a problem for NASA’s Curiosity project, which has already provided potential evidence of water on the planet, having discovered a crater than may have been a lake, as well as the possibility of flowing water on the planet’s surface.
Still, it doesn’t mean that all evidence of life will have been bleached away; instead, the Curiosity Rover may have to literally go a little deeper than originally believed if it stands any chance of success. “If organics were present under several inches of soil or in a sedimentary rock, they could be protected from radiation,” Sam Kounaves, the leader of the Tufts University team, says. “Assuming they somehow got there from an earlier epoch, they would have a greater chance of surviving.”
That is, admittedly, a fairly sizable “if.” Granted such organic material was present undergound, there are still debates as to whether or not “a greater chance” of its survival actually translates into a realistic chance. John Grotzinger, from Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology, told New Scientist that “the odds of rolling up to a rock on Mars and finding organics are vanishingly small… but we’re still going to try.”
The meteorite did bring some good news to Earth with it, along with the revelation that perhaps this entire “Mars mission” had always been doomed to failure. Along with the chloride chemicals, the Tufts team also found a mysterious white substance inside EETA 79001 that appears to be a form of nitrate they’re sure is not a contaminant picked up on Earth during its millennia-long stay here. “It’s clear to us it’s Martian,” Kounaves says. Could a new nitrate make up for the potential disappointment on offer?