It has long been believed that Mars’ surface is too oxidised for life to survive. But, a new study has now claimed that the soil on the Red Planet may be less inhospitable than previously thought.

Scientists believe that the Martian surface is packed full of oxidising compounds, which could make it difficult for complex molecules like organic chemicals — the building blocks of life as we know it — to exist.

But the new study, which analysed data gathered by NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander, suggested that it is actually not the case.

“Although there may be some small amounts of oxidants in the soil, the bulk material is actually quite benign,” said lead study author Richard Quinn of NASA’s Ames Research Centre and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

“It’s very similar to moderate soils that we find on Earth,” Quinn was quoted as saying by the Space.com.

NASA’s USD 420 million Phoenix Lander, which touched down near the Martian north pole in late May 2008, had done a number of observations and interesting soil measurements using its onboard wet chemistry laboratory (WCL). One of those was the Mars dirt’s acidity, or pH level.

Quinn and his team studied the Phoenix data, focusing on measurements of Martian soils’ oxidation reduction potential. Oxidation refers to the stripping away of electrons. It’s a destructive process that can tear up complex molecules like DNA, which is why people need antioxidants as diet.

Scientists had reason to think that Martian soil might be highly oxidising, Quinn said. In the mid-1970s, NASA’s Viking Landers mixed some organic compounds into Martian dirt, and the chemicals appeared to decompose.

But the new results, reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, paint a rosier picture of Red Planet soil as far as habitability is concerned.

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