A class of especially hardy microbes that live in some of the harshest environments on earth could flourish on cold Mars, according to a research team of astronomers and microbiologists. NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity may discover some of them in the Victoria crater, which it is about to explore.

Opportunity is about to reach the rim of a crater that is wider and deeper than any it has visited so far, in over two years roving around Mars. BBC News quotes NASA’s Ray Arvidson as saying, “?We are very interested in whether the rocks [in the crater] continue to show evidence for having been formed in shallow lakes.”

In a two-year laboratory study, the other researchers have discovered that some cold-adapted microorganisms that not only survived but reproduced at 30 degrees Fahrenheit, just below the freezing point of water. The microbes also developed a defense mechanism that protected them from cold temperatures. This makes it even more likely that Opportunity will find life on Mars.

Astronomer Neill Reid says, “The low temperature limit for life is particularly important since, in both the solar system and the Milky Way galaxy, cold environments are much more common than hot environments. Our results show that the lowest temperatures at which these organisms can thrive fall within the temperature range experienced on present-day Mars, and could permit survival and growth, particularly beneath Mars’s surface. This could expand the realm of the habitable zone, the area in which life could exist, to colder Mars-like planets.”

Most stars in our galaxy are cooler than our sun. The zone around these stars that is suitable for Earth-like temperatures would be smaller and narrower than the so-called habitable zone around our sun. Therefore, the majority of planets would likely be colder than earth.

Art credit: NASA

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