[FoRK] Methane find on Mars may be sign of life

Contempt for Meatheads jbone at place.org
Mon Mar 29 06:56:07 PST 2004

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  Methane find on Mars may be sign of life
  By Steve Connor, Science Editor
  27 March 2004
  Posted to  

A strong signal of life on Mars has been detected by scientists at the  
US National Aeronautics and Space Admin- istration (Nasa) and the  
European Space Agency.

Each group has independently discovered tantalising evidence of methane  
in the Martian atmosphere. Methane, a waste product of living organisms  
on Earth, could also be a by-product of alien microbes living under the  
surface of the Red Planet.

The detection of methane has been the holy grail of scientists studying  
the Martian atmosphere, as its presence could provide unequivocal proof  
that there is life beyond Earth.

Neither Nasa nor the European Space Agency (ESA) has publicly announced  
the findings, but specialists who have seen the data believe the  
discovery is genuine - although they are unsure what it means in terms  
of confirming the presence of life.

The discovery comes weeks after Nasa and ESA announced new findings  
relating to the presence of huge bodies of water on Mars which could  
have supported life.

The European effort is led by Vittorio Formisano, of the Institute of  
Physics and Interplanetary Science in Rome, who operates the  
methane-detecting spectrometer on board the Mars Express spacecraft  
orbiting the planet. "We can identify the presence of methane in the  
Martian atmosphere and we've been able to evaluate how much of it there  
would be," Professor Formisano said. "Globally, if I average all the  
data I have, I can find something of the order of 10 or 10.5 parts per  
billion. It's detectable, but only if I average a lot of data."

Methane is destroyed by the intense ultraviolet radiation on Mars  
because the gas has a relatively short photochemical lifetime of about  
300 years, so if it is present there must be something producing it  
continually, Professor Formisano said. "[Its presence] is significant  
and very important. If it is present you need a source," he added.

The second group to detect signals of methane in the Martian atmosphere  
is led by Michael Mumma of Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre in  
Maryland, who used powerful spectroscopic telescopes based on Earth.

This team is even believed to have detected variations in the  
concentrations of methane, with a peak coming from the ancient Martian  
seabed of Meridiani Planum, which is being explored by a Nasa rover.

This could indicate a subterranean source of methane which is pumping  
out the gas, either due to some residual geological activity or because  
of the presence of living organisms producing it as a waste gas.

Asked whether the continual production of methane is strong evidence of  
a biological origin of the gas, Dr Mumma said: "I think it is, myself  

He added: "It's difficult to imagine that primordial methane [from  
geological activity] would continue outgassing for four billion years  
[the age of Mars]. This looks very intriguing."

Both teams of scientists are now busy validating their results before  
their respective organisations are prepared to go public on the  

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