[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
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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