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Mars' water appears to have been too salty to support life
Date:5/29/2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- A new analysis of the Martian rock that gave hints of water on the Red Planet -- and, therefore, optimism about the prospect of life -- now suggests the water was more likely a thick brine, far too salty to support life as we know it.

The finding, by scientists at Harvard University and Stony Brook University, is detailed this week in the journal Science.

"Liquid water is required by all species on Earth and we've assumed that water is the very least that would be necessary for life on Mars," says Nicholas J. Tosca, a postdoctoral researcher in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. "However, to really assess Mars' habitability we need to consider the properties of its water. Not all of Earth's waters are able to support life, and the limits of terrestrial life are sharply defined by water's temperature, acidity, and salinity."

Together with co-authors Andrew H. Knoll and Scott M. McLennan, Tosca analyzed salt deposits in four-billion-year-old Martian rock explored by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, and by orbiting spacecraft. It was the Mars Rover whose reports back to Earth stoked excitement over water on the ancient surface of the Red Planet.

The new analysis suggests that even billions of years ago, when there was unquestionably some water on Mars, its salinity commonly exceeded the levels in which terrestrial life can arise, survive, or thrive.

"Our sense has been that while Mars is a lousy environment for supporting life today, long ago it might have more closely resembled Earth," says Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural Sciences and professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard. "But this result suggests quite strongly that even as long as four billion years ago, the surface of Mars would have been challenging for life. No matter how far back we peer into Mars' history, we may never see a point at which the planet really looked like Earth."

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Contact: Steve Bradt
steve_bradt@harvard.edu
617-496-8070
Harvard University
Source:Eurekalert

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