January 15, 2009
Methane On Mars Might Indicate Lifeforms

I hear Gene Wilder yelling "Its alive! Its alive! Its alive!". Methane on Mars might be a sign of biological activity below the surface. (same here)

WASHINGTON -- A team of NASA and university scientists has achieved the first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. This discovery indicates the planet is either biologically or geologically active.

It would be so much better if the methane is biological, not geological. Then we'd need to create some sort of automated instrument (probably involving microfluidic devices) that could analyze biological material on Mars to look for DNA and similar compounds. Do Martian bacteria use the same letters of the genetic alphabet that we are made out of? Could be. A Martian rock might have brought life to Earth - or perhaps vice versa.

The team found methane in the Martian atmosphere by carefully observing the planet throughout several Mars years with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility and the W.M. Keck telescope, both at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The team used spectrometers on the telescopes to spread the light into its component colors, as a prism separates white light into a rainbow. The team detected three spectral features called absorption lines that together are a definitive signature of methane.

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif." Mumma is lead author of a paper describing this research that will appear in Science Express on Thursday.

The organisms that amazingly live over a mile underground on Earth illustrate the possibility that ancient life forms on Mars could have survived long after the surface became inhospitable.

"On Earth, microorganisms thrive about 1.2 to 1.9 miles beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen and oxygen," Mumma said. "The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon. Gases, like methane, accumulated in such underground zones might be released into the atmosphere if pores or fissures open during the warm seasons, connecting the deep zones to the atmosphere at crater walls or canyons."

Of course, if all the living organisms on Mars are deep underground we are going to have a hard time reaching them with automated probes.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 January 15 11:47 PM  Space Exploration

kurt9 said at January 16, 2009 8:35 AM:

There are two and only two possibilities here. One, there is life on Mars. Two, Thomas Gold was right about natural gas (and possibly petroleum) being of abiogenic origin. A hint between these two possibilities is determining where the natural gas is coming from on Mars. Is it coming from the areas known to have underground water? If so, this suggests biology. If not, then it suggests that Thomas Gold's explanation is correct. The only definitive way to know is to send probes that land on Mars and drill into and sample the ground. Then the question is how deep must one drill to find the micro-organisms?

In said at January 16, 2009 10:05 AM:

I've heard people argue that it would be bad to detect life on mars because that would suggest that life is prevelent in the galaxy, but tends to go extinct before getting too advanced, which would also suggest dooms days are prevelant.

K said at January 16, 2009 10:50 AM:

They may be right. Maybe there is or was life on Mars. If so they were bound to find it eventually.

If not, NASA will keep finding hints of life on Mars as long as it benefits NASA. They will find evidence of life on the Sun too when that suits their purposes. And huge amounts of whatever resource Earth needs the most will be regularly located on asteroids or comets.

A couple of years ago they announced they had found life in meteorites; I haven't heard that lately. Or about that immense reservoir of ice in a depression on the moon.

Any agency as big as NASA will have a lot of good scientists and solid achievements. But there also will be, here and there, niches where the spiritual descendants of astrologers and alchemists are preparing their budget requests.

There are other possibilities. e.g. there was life on Mars, it is gone now. And even that life did not arise on Mars.

Another, NASA is not detecting methane at all, they are mistaken. Another, Mars and the solar system was not formed as we believe, the methane existed before the planets.

Life would tend to come and go. There is no reason to think it would persist over billions of years. The Earth just happens to have favorable conditions now. It was not always so and will not always be so.

B.B. said at January 17, 2009 11:08 PM:

K says:
A couple of years ago they announced they had found life in meteorites; I haven't heard that lately.

I suspect you are talking about ALH84001

K said at January 18, 2009 2:21 PM:

Re: I suspect you are talking about ALH84001

Yes, that was probably it. I couldn't care less if there is life on Mars or whether NASA finds it. It is there or it is not. And that ends the matter for me.

NASA does a lot of good things. The Solar System and Earth are worth studying and I like to see it funded and done. But NASA is also a well entrenched bureau. And like other bureaus they often promote what they are doing and what they know beyond the facts. The usual method is extrapolation and projection. I call that technique the "CouldBe."

It CouldBe that..... (insert your words here.) "Perhaps, might be, often, can, indicates, possibly, could, and suggests" are in the construction set of the hard pressed flack.

In politics the tool kits have words like "concerned" as in "Experts Are Concerned About Mortgage Crisis." Obviously an assertion that cannot be disproved.

Government entities always seek more budget and power and they say what brings it to them. That is just the way it is.

View NASA announcements about the way you view movie press releases, i.e. as carefully crafted text intended to draw customers. Some movies are accurate and worth the ticket. And some NASA work is the same.

Randall Parker said at January 18, 2009 2:33 PM:


There's one thing that NASA could pitch me that I'd be very enthusiastic to support: Identification of asteroids that might hit Earth. Also, development of tech for deflecting asteroids.

K said at January 18, 2009 3:10 PM:

Randall: Well NASA is rather certain to be well funded for the asteroid shield.

About my only observation is that if the world ends with an astroid collision then so be it. It should be fascinating to watch mankind as the doom approached.

When Worlds Collide is a good movie about it. It must be nearly sixty years old by now and is a hoot. Today the demographics of the cast are both startling and dated. Everyone is white, there may be an Asian or two somewhere in that big spaceship, even a Latino. Any Philippine busboys? But Hollywood was a white industry in those days.

As for asteroid protection and the Asteroid Security System. A good bet about complex systems is that they will fail several times before they work. An asteroid protection system only gets one chance. The odds on it succeeding are probably less that the chances the asteroid will appear anyway.

One might argue that such a system could be tuned by stopping meteorites until something big came along. Thus by tests and experience with small incoming rocks it would be ready and proved.

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