Viking’s biochemistry experiments have been among the most hotly debated scientific results of all time. The lander famously collected samples from the Red Planet in 1976, in an experiment called “Label Release.” Scientists watched with bated breath as oxygen was released from the sample after it was subjected to a liquid slurry. They were then left scratching their heads as that oxygen production continued after the sample was sterilized via 160 degree C heat. Scientists now really agree that the oxygen production that Viking noticed was an abiotic process. But that also leads to a potential opportunity as some scientists think we can make oxygen farms out of a system similar to that used on Viking itself.
Reactive oxygen species found in the Martian soil most likely reacted with liquid water, causing those reactive species to release their oxygen and turn into a more mundane and less dangerous material. Continual exposure to reactive oxygen species comes with a whole slew of detrimental side effects, such as burns and potentially cancer. And just those kinds of species are all over the surface of both the moon and Mars.
Model of the Viking lander that performed the experiments that inspired the search for the current tool under development.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona
Therefore, any technique to eliminate those potentially dangerous materials is welcome. In our bodies, antioxidants play the role of reactive agent fighters. Whereas Mars or the Moon doesn’t have such a defense mechanism, humans might build one. It might even be able to act as a sort of “oxygen farm,” allowing the oxygen released by these abiotic reactions to be transferred to breathable air.
First, explorers would have to see where those reactive species are. The best way to do that would be via a detector, and Prof. Christos Georgiou of the University of Patras thinks he has an excellent method to find them – by using a slightly modified version of Viking’s original experiment.
UT video discussing the viability of growing crops on Mars.
Using a microfluidic channel to introduce a small amount of liquid to samples collected by explorers themselves would release oxygen in the presence of reactive oxygen species. That oxygen release could act as at least a binary check of whether those species were present or not.
Such a binary check would be useful for more than just whether or not there would be potentially harmful chemicals in the area – it would also help limit the scope of the search for former life on these worlds. Reactive oxygen species would destroy any biological matter they come into contact with, so the chances of finding a fossil or another signature biomarker around large amounts of reactive species would be negligible.
Poster description of how the detection mechanism would work.
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