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The existence of a toxic chemical discovered in the Martian soil could reduce the chances of life being found on the planet

Even though there appears to be traces of water on the Red Planet of Mars, a toxic chemical found in the soil located near the Martian north pole has put a damper on the possibility of life on the planet.

The perchlorate chemical, often times used in solid rocket fuel, is an odd discovery, forcing researchers to try and check to ensure the chemical didn't get taken to Mars from Earth.  Several more soil tests in the area will be conducted by researchers, although they are not sure how the chemical develops or the exact amount of it in the soil.

"While we have not completed our process on these soil samples, we have very interesting intermediate results," said Peter Smith, principal investigator from the project.

The Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer aboard the Phoenix recently tested two different soil samples collected at the north pole.  MECA previously painted a rather optimistic picture about the possibility of life on the Red Planet, which became more believable after evidence of ice crumbs found on the planet.

NASA decided to use MECA on Mars because it is able to test the acidity and presence of certain chemicals, salts and minerals in all collected soil samples.

Researchers believe it's still possible that life has existed on the planet, and believe it's possible life could be found in underground aquifers that are able to help reduce exposure to the toxic soil.  

Alongside MECA, NASA also is using the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) to help try and find evidence of organic chemicals and the possibility of life on the Mars' surface.

Brown University researcher John Mustard, who doesn't have a hand in the project, said that all researchers should reserve judgment regarding the possibility of life on the Red Planet because of the existence of perchlorate.

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RE: We presume too much
By nvalhalla on 8/5/2008 10:13:02 AM , Rating: 1
That's what I was thinking. Who's to say there isn't an organism that can feed off of this chemical, or is immune to it. It's toxic to organisms here because we don't have it in our environment, but if it was we would have found a way to adapt.

RE: We presume too much
By masher2 on 8/5/2008 10:23:34 AM , Rating: 5
There's a substantial difference between an organic toxin like, say, botulinum that is highly specific to life here on Earth, and a strong oxidizing agent such as this perchlorate they've found on Mars. The latter isn't deadly to life because its "poisonous", but because it tends to break down complex molecular structures.

A large degree of such oxidizers would create a very harsh environment for life of any sort, due simply to basic chemistry.

RE: We presume too much
By Mojo the Monkey on 8/5/2008 1:22:48 PM , Rating: 5
It's the residue left behind from when the Martians blasted off in their rockets and evacuated the planet. duh.

RE: We presume too much
By 306maxi on 8/5/2008 1:24:43 PM , Rating: 5
Thing is we only know what we know from Earth and a few rocks from the moon. There may be forms of life composed of compounds which are beyond our wildest dreams with properties we couldn't even dream of which may find the martian landscape a perfect place to live.

RE: We presume too much
By Steve Guilliot on 8/5/2008 1:35:04 PM , Rating: 5
Perchlorate is an oxidizer, but so are oxygen and chlorine, yet you breathe air and drink treated water. As you say, it's all about concentration.

We also have to consider when life evolved and the atmospheric chemistry at the time. Speaking from an evolutionist's point of view, life on Earth started in a reducing atmosphere. The atmosphere transitioned from reducing to oxidizing after life was sufficiently complex to adapt. There are simply too many questions about Mars to conclude anything at this point.

Granted, news about reducing agents would have been more favorable to those hoping for life, but we can't pick and choose data.

RE: We presume too much
By masher2 on 8/5/2008 2:47:48 PM , Rating: 2
Good post. I agree, the evidence is a long way from conclusive, but its certainly a strike against the possibility of life.

RE: We presume too much
By mindless1 on 8/5/2008 7:02:56 PM , Rating: 2
If you believe in evolution, a life form which develops would survive within the conditions present. We hope we know one way life evolved here, but we don't know it is the only way it could happen. You can build a house entirely out of brick or straw and fire is deadly to only one of them.

RE: We presume too much
By TheLiberalTruth on 8/5/2008 11:48:59 PM , Rating: 2
its certainly a strike against the possibility of life

Not really. There are bacteria here on Earth which are resistant to Chlorine at the levels we use in our pools. Evolution at work.

RE: We presume too much
By JediJeb on 8/5/2008 4:16:47 PM , Rating: 2
If the presence of perchlorate compounds negates the possibility of life on Mars, then most cities on earth right now should be lifeless because if you test the drinking water there you will find traces of perchlorate. It is one of the compounds the EPA has us test for in drinking water supplies and comes from the chlorination process used to purify water. So in small concentrations it would not be toxic, and as the article said they weren't able to measure the concentration, only the presence.

Mercury is also considered toxic, but it can easily be found in drinking water at parts per trillion concentrations. So if you actually drink 1 trillion liters of water you will have about 1 gram of mercury accumulated in your body.

RE: We presume too much
By mindless1 on 8/5/2008 7:06:36 PM , Rating: 2
Even if they can't quantitatively measure the concentration there is still a good chance the test can resolve at least a certain minimum level was detected. IOW, if you put a cup of water through the same test, it might not have detected the low level.

RE: We presume too much
By SteelyKen on 8/5/2008 5:10:12 PM , Rating: 3
Perchlorate's chemical formula is ClO4-, and is found naturally on earth, typically as part of a salt with a positive ion. It was once thought to be such a strong oxidizing agent that it was considered incompatible with organic compounds, leading to some of the rumors that circulated about findings of a chemical that could kill. Since then, however, it has not only been found in deposits with organic compounds, but microbes have been discovered that actually use it as the primary oxidizing agent in their metabolism.

RE: We presume too much
RE: We presume too much
By marsbound2024 on 8/5/2008 8:15:02 PM , Rating: 2
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory begs to differ.

Perchlorate is an oxidant, but not powerful.

RE: We presume too much
By JediJeb on 8/6/2008 2:14:57 PM , Rating: 2
After reading the two articles above, there is still no evidence that there is a perchlorate that would perclude life. With the fact that oxygen was released, but not chlorine upon heating to 1000 C It would appear the chlorine(if present) is tightly bound to the cations of the salts. The chlorine is the part that would kill off living organisms, so if it is tightly bound it may still be safe. Plus the oxygen that is available from these salts could provide oxygen for life possibly.

Another thing to consider here is if by heating these salts you can generate oxygen, and there is a large abundance of these salts, then there might be an ample supply of oxygen stored there for use in a manned mission. One of the biggest hurdles of a manned mission is the ability to carry enough oxygen for breathing and fuel, maybe we just need to send an automated oxygen refinery ahead to make our supply.

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