War of the Worlds in reverse

10 July 2017

Close up of Mars horizon

Mars horizon
(Credit: Bernhard Lelle | Dreamstime.com)

In a reversal of the science fiction classic War of the Worlds, research shows humans may never be able to make a home on Mars because dangerous chemicals on the surface may make it impossible for Earth-based life forms to exist on the planet.

In the 1897 novel by H G Wells, Martians invade the UK – only for the aliens to eventually die because of bacteria on Earth that humans are immune to. But now, hopes for the human race to leave Earth and live on Mars have potentially been scuppered as recent research by Edinburgh scientists, funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, has shown the environment on Mars may be more harmful to Earth-based life forms than previously thought.

Researchers investigated the behaviour of chemical compounds called ‘perchlorates’ which are found on the surface of the red planet. They found that, when exposed to ultra violet light equivalent to Martian conditions, the chemicals can speedily kill off bacteria commonly carried by spacecraft sent from Earth.

Scientists have speculated on the influence that perchlorates may have on the habitability of the planet, since their discovery there several years ago. Although the Martian surface has been suspected for some time to have toxic effects, the latest study suggests that it may be highly damaging to living cells thanks to the toxic mix of oxidants, iron oxides, perchlorates, and UV energy.

Lead author of the research paper Jennifer Wadsworth, from the University of Edinburgh , said: “Our findings have important implications for the possible contamination of Mars with bacteria and other materials from space missions. This should be taken into account in designing missions to Mars.”

The study also suggested that the effect of perchlorates can be intensified by two other types of chemicals found on Mars’ surface, iron oxides and hydrogen peroxide – experiments which combined all three led to a more than 10-fold increase in death of bacterial cells compared with perchlorates alone.

Read the full story on the University of Edinburgh website.

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Becky Parker-Ellis
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