Hygroscopic Salts and the Potential for Life on Mars


Davila, A. F., Duport, L. G., Melchiorri, R., Jaenchen, J., Valea, S., de Los Rios, A., … & Wierzchos, J. (2010). Hygroscopic salts and the potential for life on Mars. Astrobiology, 10(6), 617-628.


Hygroscopic salts have been detected in soils in the northern latitudes of Mars, and widespread chloride-bearing evaporitic deposits have been detected in the southern highlands. The deliquescence of hygroscopic minerals such as chloride salts could provide a local and transient source of liquid water that would be available for microorganisms on the surface. This is known to occur in the Atacama Desert, where massive halite evaporites have become a habitat for photosynthetic and heterotrophic microorganisms that take advantage of the deliquescence of the salt at certain relative humidity (RH) levels. We modeled the climate conditions (RH and temperature) in a region on Mars with chloride-bearing evaporites, and modeled the evolution of the water activity (aw) of the deliquescence solutions of three possible chloride salts (sodium chloride, calcium chloride, and magnesium chloride) as a function of temperature. We also studied the water absorption properties of the same salts as a function of RH. Our climate model results show that the RH in the region with chloride-bearing deposits on Mars often reaches the deliquescence points of all three salts, and the temperature reaches levels above their eutectic points seasonally, in the course of a martian year. The aw of the deliquescence solutions increases with decreasing temperature due mainly to the precipitation of unstable phases, which removes ions from the solution. The deliquescence of sodium chloride results in transient solutions with aw compatible with growth of terrestrial microorganisms down to 252 K, whereas for calcium chloride and magnesium chloride it results in solutions with aw below the known limits for growth at all temperatures. However, taking the limits of aw used to define special regions on Mars, the deliquescence of calcium chloride deposits would allow for the propagation of terrestrial microorganisms at temperatures between 265 and 253 K, and for metabolic activity (no growth) at temperatures between 253 and 233 K. Key Words: Hygroscopic salts—Evaporites—Water activity—Temperature—Endoliths—Atacama Desert—Deliquescence—Mars—Life. Astrobiology 10, 617–628.

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