New Evidence Supports Possibility of Life on Mars

Prof who Designed Lander Instrument Calls Perchlorate Discovery Significant

Aug. 3, 2009

Studies of Mars are yielding more clues that conditions may once have been right for life on the Red Planet. With data still pouring out of analysis from the Phoenix Mars Lander, scientists are gleaning enough clues to consider that a billion or so years ago, microscopic creatures may have thrived and fed in Martian soil.

The presence of perchlorates—a naturally occurring salt of perchloric acid—was detected in the polygon-patterned plains of northern Mars.

“No one expected to find perchlorates,” said Dr. John Hoffman, a member of the Phoenix Mars Lander research team and professor of physics at UT Dallas. Hoffman designed and built the spectrometer that definitively confirmed the presence of water on Mars. “It’s not yet been determined how this stuff was formed, but perchlorates store a great deal of energy that could have been a food source for tiny living organisms.”

Hoffman co-authored three articles related to the Martian surface in a recent issue of Science. The research articles examined detection of perchlorates and provided an overview of the Mars water discovery and the discovery of calcium carbonate.

“Discovering what the surface of Mars consists of is particularly fascinating,” Hoffman said. “We found calcium carbonate, or limestone, which precipitates out of water over time. Because we found water, we expected to find calcium carbonate, but the perchlorate was a big surprise. And what it means is that millions, or even a billion years ago, life could have existed on Mars. No one knows for sure at this time, but it’s possible.”

Hoffman said that while Mars is an extremely cold planet today, just a few tens of millions of years ago the planet’s axis of rotation of the planet was quite different. Mars pointed more directly toward the sun during Martian summers, and that could have boosted surface temperatures enough for life to flourish.


Media contacts: Brandon V. Webb, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, Brandon.webb@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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Dr. John Hoffman designed and built the spectrometer that definitively confirmed the presence of water on Mars. The UT Dallas physics professor is a member of the Phoenix Mars Lander research team.

The surface of Mars is covered with polygon-shaped formations that are 1 to 2 meters across. The formations are thought to be created when surface ice expands and contracts in the soil as temperatures change.

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