Is there life on Mars? Atmospheric methane says ‘maybe’

MarsAfter last year’s long-awaited confirmed discovery of water on the red planet, David Bowie comes another step closer to finding the answer to his question: NASA called a press conference today to announce that they have, in partnership with some university science teams, “achieved the first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars”.

So what’s the big deal with that? Basically, there’s two reasons you might find methane in a planetary atmosphere: geological activity or biological activity. It’s going to take a lot more work to discover which of the two is the culprit in the case of Mars (and the NASA announcement does a better job that I can of explaining it all), but either option is pretty exciting to space nerds… after all, it’s not all that long ago that we pretty much assumed the whole planet was inert.

And as a side-tangent, this is great political timing from NASA, whether accidental or deliberate – with a new president about to enter the White House with promises to shake things up, announcements like this get everybody talking about space with that old-school sensawunda I remember from my childhood… and given the bleak state of the news headlines at the moment, something to make us look up from the mundane for a moment can only be a positive. Something big to dream about. [image by chipdatajeffb]

I mean, just think – life on Mars! It’s like something out of a science fiction novel, isn’t it? 😉

4 thoughts on “Is there life on Mars? Atmospheric methane says ‘maybe’”

  1. From the NASA article:

    “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.”

    If all complex life on Earth were to become extinct (e.g. because of a runaway greenhouse effect a la Venus or the Earth gradually drifting out of the habitable zone (unlikely but WTH)) would oil and coal remain as evidence of it’s existance?

    Would coal or oil remain for billions of years?

    IOW: could it be that Mars had complex life in the distant past and coal and oil was created by these biological processes and then the Martian life massively devolved or became extinct for some reason?

    From what I know about extremophiles on Earth, “life” is pretty tenacious, so if there was life at some point on Mars it would probably still be there.

    Still, life on Mars would be huge – it would change everything.

    Much excitement!

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