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The purpose of this paper is to identify the factors that make a planet
habitable by observing the structures and processes that occur on the
Earth and comparing them to those on Mars so as to conclude whether life
currently is or could be made possible on our neighbouring planet.


There are four different biogeochemical systems on Earth that allow

chemicals to flow between reservoirs and interact with the environment.
They are the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere and
each plays a key role in maintaining the balance that allows life to flourish
on the planet. The cycles in which the chemicals move from one system to
another occur at different speeds (ranging from a single nutrient cycle to
geological timescales) and generally go through organic (interacting with
living organisms) and inorganic (interacting with the physical
environment) phases.

2.1 Atmosphere

The Earth’s atmosphere is made up of various gases such as nitrogen,

oxygen, carbon dioxide, argon, neon, helium, water vapour, methane
and others.

The amount of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere has

changed dramatically since the early days of the planet. Today it
makes up only 0.03% of the atmosphere and is a key element in
keeping the Earth’s systems in dynamic equilibrium by recycling
oxygen (photosynthesis) and helping maintain a comfortable
temperature for life to exist on the planet (greenhouse effect). The
greenhouse effect is a natural process through which part of the heat
energy emitted by the Sun enters the atmosphere, is partially reflected
from the Earth’s surface back into the troposphere and is reflected
back to the Earth by the ‘barrier’ formed by greenhouse gases (carbon
dioxide, water vapour, methane and others). In this way, the heat
energy from the Sun is kept in the lower atmosphere and is
redistributed across the planet by convection currents.

A few billion years ago however, the high concentration of carbon

dioxide (90%) meant the greenhouse effect was far more powerful and
that the Earth was a very hot place. Over time however, life forms
appeared that began storing the energy from the Sun through the
process of photosynthesis and thus absorbed the carbon dioxide,
releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. Over the next few million
years, the quantities of oxygen have fluctuated: it reacted with the iron
from the seas and rocks but when the excess quantities could no
longer be absorbed by the iron, oxygen levels rose and caused wildfires | 2
which in turn created more carbon dioxide, eventually bringing down
the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere to a steady 21%.
Oxygen plays a key role in aerobic respiration, chemical weathering,
soil formation and the oxidation of volcanic gases.

Also present in the Earth’s atmosphere is argon, making up 0.9% of it.

Although the exact role of this element is not known, scientists have
identified that it serves as a dilutant, as it is relatively inert.

The largest concentration of gas in the atmosphere is that of nitrogen

at 78%, a gas that also acts as a dilutant to the other atmospheric
gases, as its triple (covalent) bonds make it very stable and inert.
Certain groups of bacteria are able to process the nitrogen found in the
atmosphere to produce ammonia, which is more reactive and this can
then be converted into nitrites and nitrates by other bacteria. As a
consequence, we find nitrogen compounds in plants and animals.

The Earth’s atmosphere can be divided into four different layers

according to altitude: the troposphere, the stratosphere, the
mesosphere and the thermosphere.






(The Environment: Principles and Applications, Chris Park, 2001)

The lowest layer, reaching up to 10-12km above the Earth’s surface, is

the troposphere: a warm, moist layer containing most of the dust,
vapour and mass of the atmosphere (90% of its gases). This layer is
responsible for the different climates of the planet and it is where most
weather processes and biological activity (including respiration) take
place. The lower levels of the layer obtain their heat due to their
contact with the Earth’s surface. The troposphere is where the
greenhouse effect occurs and the layer in which convection currents
redistribute the heat energy sourced from the Sun. It is also where
atmospheric pressure is at its highest, as due to gravity, the
atmosphere is pulled towards the Earth and most of the mass of the
atmosphere is found in the troposphere.

Above the troposphere (alt. 15-50km) is the stratosphere: a relatively

thin, dry, stable and weather-free layer which also includes the ozone
layer. This very thin layer is made up of triatomic oxygen molecules
which absorb the incoming UV radiations from the sun and use up the
energy so that the UV waves do not reach the Earth’s surface. As the
energy from the UV waves is absorbed, a reversible process takes
place: diatomic oxygen molecules are broken up into single atoms,
which then bond with other diatomic molecules to produce triatomic
molecules (ozone); this in turn gets broken up into O and O2 and the
process is repeated over and over.

O2 → O + O ; O + O2 → O3 ; O3 → O + O2

Because solar radiation is absorbed in this process and due to the fact
that the stratosphere is heated from above, the temperatures in this
layer increase with altitude.

The mesosphere is the atmospheric layer between the altitudes of 50

and 85km. It protects the planet from meteorites by burning them up
either completely or so as to make them smaller in size (and thus
relatively harmless) before they reach the surface of the Earth. Due to
the decreasing density of the atmosphere in this higher layer, solar
radiation cannot be absorbed and temperatures decrease with

The outer most layer of the atmosphere is the thermosphere or

ionosphere, between 85 and 100km above the ground. Short-wave
solar radiation energizes the ions in the thermosphere, making them
move at very great speeds and an increase in temperature is
recorded. This layer is virtually a vacuum and it protects the Earth
from solar cosmic particles.

2.2 Hydrosphere

About 3.5 billion years ago, soon after the formation of the planet,
temperatures began to stabilize and the global rainstorms formed by
condensing volcanic steam gave birth to a global ocean of water. It is
this same water that is continuously circulating through the
atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere today that forms the
hydrosphere. The cycle in which water flows from one system to
another and is distributed around the planet (though unevenly in time
and space) is the hydrological or water cycle.

Water moves from one reservoir to another by various processes and

in doing so, it passes through all its three physical states (solid, liquid,
gaseous) and interacts with the three other biogeochemical systems.
The processes involve heat energy exchange which leads to a change
in temperature.

Water reaches the atmosphere through evaporation from oceans,

surface storage or soil and through transpiration from vegetation. It
accumulates in the atmosphere, gets redistributed by global and
regional wind systems and through condensation it is released back to
the surface by precipitation. Here, water can either flow into rivers or
lakes. Water stored in ice and snow can either sublimate into water
vapour and accumulate in the atmosphere or it can melt and infiltrate
into groundwater reserves, eventually reaching the ocean by



Major natural stores of water

in the global hydrological cycle
Store Percentag
Oceans 97.41
Ice caps and glaciers 1.9
Groundwater 0.5
Soil moisture 0.01
Lakes and rivers 0.009
Atmosphere 0.0001

The global water cycle: storage amounts and times

Store Size (km2) Typical residence time
Plants and animals 700 1 week
Atmosphere 13000 8-10 days
Rivers 1700 2 weeks
Soil 65000 2 weeks – 1 year
Lakes, reservoirs, 125000 years
Rock (groundwater) 7000000 days – thousands of years
Ice 26000000 thousands of years
Oceans 137000000 thousands of years
(The Environment: Principles and Applications, Chris Park, 2001)

What is striking about water is not simply its presence, but its
abundance: 70% of the surface of the planet is covered with water, it is
found in the bodies of most living organisms and also accounts for 5%
of the volume of rocks. It plays a vital role in biological and physical
processes and metabolism - its importance to life on Earth cannot be

After its formation and stabilization, the planet was able to retain water
thanks to its gravitational field, adequate atmospheric pressure and |6
relatively stable temperatures. In nature, water can be found in all its
three states: solid, liquid and gaseous form.

Water vapour is known to be one of the major contributors to the

naturally occuring greenhouse effect and helps keep the Earth at a
comfortable temperature for life.

As a liquid, water acts as a medium that influences climate in that it

redistributes the excess energy from the tropics to the poles via ocean

Its unusual chemical properties make water almost an ‘impossible’

substance and is an excellent medium for chemical reactions:

• transparency: allows certain wavelengths of light to enter it, so

that aquatic organisms can photosynthesise;

• it is a good solvent, which means it allows a large range of

chemical reactions to take place, it can transport a variety of
chemicals, as well as erode materials such as limestone;

• incompressibility: can build a hydrostatic structures such as a

hydrostatic skeleton;

• viscosity: allows free flowing transport;

• surface tension: certain insects can walk on water;

• cohesion: provides insulation;

• liquidity: makes conditions for aquatic life possible (medium,

temperature, etc.), acts as a medium for cells, allows soil
drainage and sediment flow and reshapes the geological
features of the Earth, feeds plant and animal life.

As water only exists on the planet in a limited, fixed amount which gets
transported, recycled and redistributed in the four biogeochemical
cycles. Solar energy as well as gravity act as fuel for these processes
and the hydrological cycle forms a closed system offering an
inexhaustible resource that is synonymous with life.

2.3 Lithosphere

Most of what we know about the interior of the Earth has been
concluded from indirect evidence. Seismic and gravity studies as well
as the study of meteorites, particularly chondrites, which are
representative of the material that accumulated to form the Earth, give
scientists some idea of how the Earth is structured.

The Earth appears to be made up of a series of concentric spherical

layers, each with its own unique set of roles and properties.
The inner most part of the planet is the core: we can distinguish
between an inner and an outer core. The inner core is a solid sphere
rich in iron and nickel with a radius of 1255km. Temperatures range
between 4500 and 5500°C, making it as hot as the surface of the Sun.
The pressure in the inner core is extremely high, about 3.5 million
times higher than the atmospheric pressure. The outer core envelops
the inner core and has a thickness of 2220km. It, too, is rich in iron and
nickel, but the material is in its liquid state due to the fact that it is not
subjected to such enormous amounts of pressure as the material of the
inner core. The outer core becomes cooler as we move farther away
from the inner core, the minimum temperature being 2000°C. This
outer layer of the core is believed to be rotating around the inner part
similar to a dynamo, and therefore generates the Earth’s magnetic
field whose role it is to protect the planet from meteorites.

Enveloping the outer core is the mantle: this is a 2900km thick layer
of dense rock. It is composed mainly of minerals ( silicate compounds),
iron and magnesium. Although it is in solid form, the material has a
fluid behaviour. The deepest ‘shell’ of the mantle is the
asthenosphere. Because of the heat and pressure of the inner Earth,
as the core and mantle materials interact, convection currents are
generated which carry the partially melted rocks of the mantle and are
responsible for tectonic plates’ movement. The next layer of the
mantle, referred to by geologists as the lithosphere, is a 75km thick
layer of rigid, solid material that merges with the moho. The moho, or
Mohorovicic discontinuity, is the boundary between the mantle and the
crust. This is the outer most shell with a varying thickness of 8-65km.
The crust is made up of the least dense rocks representing the surface
of the Earth (includes all of the landforms and oceans) and appears to
be floating on the denser rocks of the mantle. We can distinguish two
different types of crust:

• sima (oceanic crust): made of thin, dense, heavy material that

tends to deform rather than break when subjected to geological

• sial (continental crust): made of brittle, thick, light material

which will fracture along individual faults when subjected to
geological stress

The phenomenon of plate tectonics is associated with the movement

of large fragments of the planet’s crust (plates) over the ‘flowing’ rocks
of the mantle. Various geological activities (volcanic eruptions,
earthquakes, the shaping of mountains, folding and faulting ) occur
along the margins of plates, as this is where material from the mantle
and heat energy can escape to the surface.

Volcanoes form at converging or diverging plate boundaries and

thanks to eruptions, the magma from within the mantle can surface |8
and be deposited on top of the Earth’s crust as igneous rock. Volcanic
ash is rich in minerals and volcanic soil is very fertile. All volcanic rocks
contain various quantities of silica and can be divided into three
groups: mafic (silica-poor rock such as basalt), intermediate(such as
andesite) and felsic (silica-rich rock such as granite).The igneous rock
gets weathered in time and is transported and redistributed along the
Earth’s surface, where it undergoes lithification and becomes
sedimentary rock. This can be clastic (composed of fragments of
other pre-existing rocks like sandstone), organic (composed of dead
organic materials such as limestone or chalk) or chemical precipitates
(formed by deposition of materials that were previously dissolved in
water, such as dolomite). As more layers accumulate, the rock is buried
and due to factors such as heat and pressure, it is compacted to form
metamorphic rock (such as gneiss, schist or slate). This occurs when
one plate slides under another: the rock overlying the mantle is moved
by convection currents, gets pushed back into the mantle (subduction)
where it is melted and turns back into magma and is transported by
the same currents within the Earth until it resurfaces again through
volcanic activity, thus completing the rock cycle.

Volcanic activity is also particularly significant as during eruptions, the

carbon dioxide from the rock is released back into the atmosphere
(thus linking the CO2 from the lithosphere with the CO2 in the
weathering, erosion, burial, compaction
transport ( (heat,
(denudation pressure) |9

cooling, uplifting

2.4 Biosphere

Carbon is to be one of the most widely distributed elements on the

planet and, due to its versatility, one of the basic building blocks of life.
A carbon atom has only four electrons on its outer most shell, which
gives it the ability to form a very wide range of complex and intricate
bonds with other chemicals found on Earth. This makes it an excellent
candidate as a fundamental building block for all forms of life. It can
form up to four covalent bonds with other elements, it has the capacity
to bond with itself to create long molecules, and it can also form double
or triple bonds with other carbon atoms. The versatility of this element
allows it to link together the four life support systems of the Earth.

Carbon is constantly circulated and recycled, and the processes it

undergoes involve interaction with living organisms and their
surrounding environment (organic and inorganic phases).

Carbon is stored in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This is used by

plants for photosynthesis and consequently oxygen is released into the
atmosphere. The carbon compounds produced by the plants are
passed along in the food chain, and the carbon eventually returns to
the atmosphere by respiration, natural combustion (such as wildfires)
or decay (through death and decomposition). Carbon dioxide can also
enter water directly (diffusion), dissolve into it and bond with the water
molecules to form carbonic acid. This is converted into calcium
carbonate, which accumulates in sediments. Dead aquatic organisms
can also end up on the bottom of the ocean and undergo lithification. It
is thanks to chemical weathering and volcanic eruptions that the
carbon trapped in the rocks is released back into the atmosphere.

Carbon is also important in the form of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse

gas: it is responsible for the regulation of global temperature.
| 10

erosion by
acids in rain
carbon plant
microbial compounds
respiration in animals
carbon eaten
compounds by
in micro herbivores
s in fossil excretion
fuels or death
decomposition death
fossilisation by bacteria
and fungi



Among the several unmanned missions that have reached Mars in the
past, it was the two Viking missions (1976),the more recent Mars
Pathfinder (1997) and Phoenix (2008) that have provided us with the most
important information we now have about our neighbouring planet Mars.
In addition to images, these missions have added to our knowledge with
atmospheric, geophysical, geochemical and thermal data.

3.1 Atmosphere

The atmosphere of Mars is similar to what scientists believe the early

Earth’s atmosphere was like: predominantly carbon dioxide (95%),
nitrogen (2.7%), argon (1.6%) with traces of oxygen (0.13%), water
vapour and methane.
Since Mars lost most of its magnetic field about 4 billion years ago,
solar winds and cosmic rays can interact directly with the Martian
ionosphere and thus keep the atmosphere thinner than it would
normally be as atoms from the outer layers are easily stripped away.

Compared to the early Martian atmospheric composition, “Most of the | 11

original volatiles (elements and molecules that normally exist in
gaseous form) probably remain, but they are locked in the porous rock
of the surface layer. This implies that the planet’s atmosphere has
probably changed in the course of its history.” (Peter Cattermole,

Presently, even though due to its large concentration of carbon dioxide

the Martian atmosphere should have greater potential to trap heat
from the sun through the greenhouse effect, because of its 227.9
million km from the Sun (as opposed to the Earth’s 149.60 mil km), as
well as its comparatively low atmospheric pressure (due to low
gravity), the average temperature on the planet ranges between 20°C
and -140°C (the greenhouse effect only warms the planet by 10°C, as
opposed to the Earth where temperatures increase by 33°C due to the
same phenomenon).

3.2 Lithosphere

The Martian surface is largely iron oxide dust (rust), giving the planet
its reddish appearance. North of the Martian equator, the landscape
consists mostly of volcanic plains and huge shield volcanoes
concentrated on a swelling in the lithosphere (Tharsis Bulge). Although
currently we do not observe any geologic or tectonic activity, there are
high chances of them having occurred in the past.

Mars shows signs of past volcanic activity and it is assumed that its
iron sulphite core surrounded by a silicate mantle is much cooler than
that of the Earth. The comparatively small mass of Mars means it grew
cooler more rapidly than our planet and so volcanic activity grew
smaller in intensity. However, “it is possible that some [volcanoes] are
still active” (Simon Lamb, David Sington, 1998)

Scientists today assume that 4-3.5 billion years ago, when water was
still flowing on the Martian surface, most of the CO2 from the
atmosphere formed an acid with the rain, reached the surface water
through precipitation and became trapped in the rocks. This, along with
hydrogen fluxing (the presence of water vapour in the upper
atmosphere dissociating under the influence of solar radiation causing
a steady leakage of atmospheric gases into space) means that the
level of atmospheric CO2 sank and the planet became cooler. It had no
way of replenishing its atmosphere, and the intensity of volcanic
eruptions was also decreased. Some scientists speculate that this must
have brought about a Martian ice age about 3 billion years ago. (Simon
Lamb, David Sington, 1998)

Evidence of the stability of the Martian crust can be found in huge

volcanoes such as Olympus Mons, which rises 26km above the surface
and is 500km across at its base. It strongly suggests that there is no | 12
tectonic activity on Mars, meaning the rock cycle is inactive (there is
no recycling of rocks).

Plate tectonics do not currently operate on Mars, therefore the CO2

trapped in the rocks cannot be released back into the atmosphere.

3.3 Hydrosphere

It is assumed that Mars formed through processes similar to those of

the Earth, and that water was either released from the cooling planet
as vapour or that it was brought by comets and other colliding
heavenly bodies.

South of the equator, the surface is heavily cratered by impacts and

shows extensive valley networks and outflow channels. The Martian
landscape suggests that our neighbouring planet once had flowing
rivers (the equatorial canyon system Valles Marineris is supporting
evidence), however it seems to have lost most of its water due to
factors such as low atmospheric pressure, low gravity and a very thin

Although scientists are able to observe polar ‘ice’ caps on Mars (made
up of frozen carbon dioxide and water), there appears to be no liquid
water on Mars even though sometimes the surface temperature of the
planet rises above the freezing point (0°C). Mars’ atmospheric pressure
is one hundredth that of the Earth and because the lower the air
pressure, the more rapidly any liquid evaporates, water cannot exist in
liquid form on this planet (it would evaporate instantly).

One of the rocks that Pathfinder (1997) examined in an old Martian

water channel proved to be rich in silica, making it very similar to
Earth’s rocks that have undergone some sort of differentiation, hinting
at the past existence of liquid water on the surface of Mars.

“Further evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars
comes from the detection of specific minerals such as hematite and
goethite, both of which sometimes form in the presence of water.”


According to the current understanding of planet habitability, there are

four major factors that determine whether life as we know it can exist on
another planet: an energy source, liquid water, a suitable atmosphere with
the basic building blocks of life and relatively stable temperatures that
would allow life to exist and evolve.

4.1 Energy source

| 13
As opposed to the Earth, Mars is too far away from the Sun, resulting in
a low influx of solar radiation. Its thin atmosphere (in which CO2 is high
in proportion but not in quantity) is incapable of trapping and
transferring heat energy across the surface of the planet and thus
Martian surface temperatures do not favour the development of living

4.2 Liquid water

The low atmospheric pressure inhibits Mars from retaining the water so
integral to life and metabolism in liquid form for long periods of time.
This is possible only at very low altitudes and for very short periods of
time. On Mars, liquid water does not exist above the surface.

The water frozen at Mars’ polar ice caps, if melted, could cover the
entire planet in an ocean 11m deep. The atmospheric factors however
make such an event highly unlikely or difficult even if it were
attempted artificially.

4.3Atmosphere, temperature and chemical building blocks

Although the sun may have given off less heat in the past, high levels
of CO2 contributed to a comfortable temperature on the Earth’s
surface, allowing life to develop.

Mars’ present-day atmosphere very much resembles Earth’s early

atmosphere in this respect as far as ratio is concerned, however
quantitatively it does not favour terrestrial life. In spite of the high
concentration of carbon dioxide, the Martian greenhouse effect is far
too weak to maintain suitable temperatures.

The nitrogen and oxygen levels would be much higher in the presence
of living organisms, although “evidence suggests that single-cell plants
and animals developed from inert materials in the Earth’s crust.” (Chris
Park, 2001) It was these first organisms that have, in essence, created
an atmosphere that was suited for the birth and evolution of other
more advanced organisms. So, if we were to make Mars habitable and
restructure its atmosphere, this would be among the first priorities: we
would need to make conditions suitable for these early organisms so
that they in turn can further induce the changes necessary to recreate
an environment that will harbour terrestrial life.

Scientists have suggested that certain micro organisms (methanogens)

may already be present on Mars, as they could account for the
quantities of methane found on the planet. Traces of methane and
formaldehyde were recently discovered on Mars. The existence of
these chemicals in view of the fact that they would normally break
down quickly in the atmosphere, hints at the existence of life. It has
also been suggested that these chemical compounds may also be the
result of volcanic activity. If however it is indeed living organisms that | 14
are responsible for the presence of these compounds, we would need
to look for Martian life far below the surface as liquid water may exist
there due to milder temperatures.

Phoenix (2008) has found that Martian soil is highly alkaline and
indicates the presence of soil nutrients (high levels of magnesium,
sodium, potassium and chloride were detected). But even though
organisms have readily available nutrients, they would still be
confronted with exposure to solar radiation: Mars has no equivalent of
an ozone layer. We again conclude that conditions are not suitable for
organic life to develop at the surface: “In 2007, it was calculated that
DNA and RNA damage by cosmic radiation would limit life on Mars to
depths greater than 7.5 metres below the planet's surface.”
( This information suggests
that the best possible locations for discovering life on Mars could be
beneath the surface, in areas that have not been studied yet.

4.4 Plate tectonics and volcanic activity

The relative geological inertia of Mars means that it no longer

generates a magnetic field to protect from harmful solar radiation, and
that there is no more inner heat and motion to form the convection
currents needed for tectonic movement. This implies that the all the
Martian CO2 is trapped partly in the atmosphere and partly in rocks
(the lack of tectonic and volcanic activity means the rock cycle has
been broken and the carbon dioxide in the rock cannot be renewed and
released back into the atmosphere).

Most of the research and exploration done on Mars in search of

extraterrestrial life is based on the assumption that these potential living
organisms will be similar to those found on Earth and therefore
necessitate similar conditions. Yet there is another possibility: life forms
may evolve around different metabolic mechanisms. Silicon has been
suggested as an alternative to our main building block, carbon, and
ammonia may very well be an alternative to water.

The evidence we have gathered so far indicates that Mars may not boast
the conditions necessary for life, at least not at the surface, or not as we
know it: it may harbour life in forms that we do not recognize. We may
very well be wrong in looking to different planets either searching for or
trying to create a mirror of our own.
As a species whose apparition and evolution was made possible by a
plethora of favourable factors, cycles and systems (and some would
argue, intelligent design), we are responsible for the Earth and must
understand its workings and know our own history well before we can seek
out new horizons.
| 15


· Atmospheric Processes and Human Influence (Paul Warburton)

· The Environment: Principles and Applications (Chris Park, 2001)

· A Short History of Planet Earth (J. D. MacDougall, 1996)

· Water: Its Global Nature (Michael Allaby, 1992)

· The Encyclopaedia of Earth and Other Planets (Peter Cattermole, 1994)

· Earth Story – The Shaping of Our World (Simon Lamb, David Sington,

· (retrieved 30/09/2010)

· (retrieved 30/09/2010)