Earthquakes are often terrifying and deadly affairs, but they might have played a role in the development of life on Earth, and maybe even beyond our planet.
A new study, published in Astrobiology, investigated the amount of hydrogen released when rocks grind against each other, like during earthquakes. The international team from Yale, University of Aberdeen, and Brock University found that the amount of hydrogen expelled could sustain underground bacteria near geological fractures.
“Previous work has suggested that hydrogen is produced during earthquakes when rocks fracture and grind together,” said lead author Sean McMahon, from Yale, in a statement. “Our measurements suggest that enough hydrogen is produced to support the growth of microorganisms around active faults.”
This discovery has an implication on the potential for life on Mars. The Red Planet has only a limited amount of resources we normally associate with life (water, oxygen, and so on), but bacteria can use reactions like the oxidation of hydrogen gas to obtain the energy they need to survive.
“Mars is not very seismically active, but our work shows that ‘Marsquakes’ could produce enough hydrogen to support small populations of microorganisms, at least for short periods of time,” McMahon added.
“This is just one part of the emerging picture of the habitability of the Martian subsurface, where other sources of energy for life may also be available. The best way to find evidence of life on Mars may be to examine rocks and minerals that formed deep underground around faults and fractures, which were later brought to the surface by erosion.”
There are no missions with that specific goal yet, but one of the potential rovers that will soon visit Mars could maybe reach the right rock formations.
An extensive geological analysis of the Red Planet won’t come soon, but scientists are definitely thinking about it. In 2018, NASA is sending a seismographer to Mars onboard of the InSight lander, and hopefully we are going to learn all about these Marsquakes.