Methane on Mars

Posted by | January 16, 2009 | Uncategorized | One Comment

Is the announcement of fart gas on Mars, just before a new administration and NASA budget comes into play the biggest news story ever?

The web has a tendency to promote news with good headlines rather than the truth. There is no better headline than ‘life on mars’ which has spread from the UK tabloid, the Sun, to Drudge, which makes a living from picking interesting headline links.

After the disappointment of the unconvincing find of fossil bacteria in a Martian meteorite scientists are more careful these days, but this time the omens are good. Its precisely because of this caution and the general fact that science is often not as dramatic as fiction that the serious news outlets aren’t able to run front page, ‘Life on Mars’ headlines.

Carl Zimmer live blogged the NASA press conference:

Mars is active and producing plumes of methane (which amazingly were discovered from Earth based telescopes not Martian probes).

The methane comes from volcanoes or bugs.

The evidence (lack of other volcanic gases, for example) points to bugs.

For further bug evidence we would need to look at isotopes in the methane.

To look for bugs we would have to either drill wide and deep (not going to happen soon) or if we are very lucky, scratch through a layer of permafrost.


One Comment

  • James Reuther says:

    Is it that serious news outlets are not able to report this story, NPR and Fox both reported it, or that the evidence is thus far (presence of methane) not compelling nor promising, but instead in the category of interesting. There have been many pointers both towards and away from life on Mars in recent years:
    • Most surface rocks on Mars are volcanic and ancient – not compelling of a planet abundant in life – Viking, Pathfinder and Spirit (2004)
    • Possible fossil microbes – as you note.
    • Sedimentary rocks definitely formed in the presence of water – a prerequisite of life as we know it – Opportunity 2004
    • Salt content and likely PH levels of waters forming sedimentary rocks way outside typical life baring environments on Earth – Opportunity 2004-2005
    • 90% pure silica deposits indicating hyrothermal water based processes – good places for cooking up life – Spirit 2007
    • Possible subterranean liquid water erupting at surface seen by Mars orbiter via changes in surface topology over time – HiRISE 2006
    • Alternate dry granular debris explanation of surface topology changes discounting subterranean water – 2008
    • Confirmed presence of surface ice water and by inference liquid water with PH and salt levels with normal ranges for life – Phoenix 2008
    • Detected presence of perchlorate which is usually toxic to life – Phoenix 2008
    I would argue that many of these very news worthy items did not make big news, specifically because they were not compelling, or even very promising as proof of life. So what if there might be methane and that it is likely still expelled into the atmosphere, it is a long way from those facts to: life exists on Mars.
    I also see another issue overshadowing the public interest in life on Mars. Prior to recent orbiter and lander missions, there was the thought that more than microbial Martian life could have existed in the past and might still exist today. Today, we know that because Mars has not had a dynamo driven strong magnetic field for a very long time (2-3 billion years), and hence nothing to protect its atmosphere from the solar radiation/wind, life never had a chance to develop beyond the microbial level. The thinking was that by finding evidence of past life or still existent life, it would provide proof that we could unlock its frozen atmosphere and turn mars back into a verdant sister planet. Well, with no strong magnetic field to protect the atmosphere it seems impossible for us to resurrect Mars. Yes, we might be able to populate Mars with Earth microbes or even find indigenous Martian variants (and that would be big news) but life on Mars begins and ends at the bacterial level – if at all.
    As a final note, what remains of deep interest in validating life, extinct or existent, on Mars is determining the frequency of life originating elsewhere near us. If life never existed on Mars, for it seems that it was at least possible for it to germinate there in the past, then life is more rare than currently thought, and finding more Earth equivalent environments will be a greater challenge. Griffin did chime in that he thinks subsurface life at mars did exist once and may still exist.

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