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Friday, January 16, 2009

Well, this is pretty exciting!

As many of you know I am something of a space nut and, as such, am intrigued by pretty much everything that has to do with the space program. Moreover, I've been like this for a very, very long time. In high school my physics teacher once played a game of name-the-planet/moon with me. I did very, very well although I concede that on some occasions I was aided by the fact that we only have so many pictures of certain astronomical bodies. I mean, seriously, how often do you think we've been in a position to photograph Miranda,* anyway? In any case, I have a fondness for space.

I also, as it happens, have a fondness for attempts to find life in space. While I am generally troubled by the Fermi paradox,** I love the SETI program and got so excited over the possibility of fossil bacteria in a meteorite that I lost a pen-pal. No, really, I did. Turned out my pen-pal was of the view that god wouldn't have created life anywhere else, so claims to the contrary were an affront to god. Not sure what to say except that if god had wanted us to think that we weren't the only life in the universe, he probably shouldn't have let those extraterrestrial bacteria get fossilized.*** Oops.

So, given all this, you can imagine my excitement at the recent news that we may just have discovered strong evidence for life on the planet Mars. No, I'm not kidding. Researchers at NASA have announced the discovery of significant amounts of methane in the atmosphere of the planet Mars. And while methane can be produced by both life and natural geologic processes, Mars appears to be geologically dead. Additionally, methane is rapidly broken down by sunlight so it isn't just that methane is in Mars' atmosphere, but that it is being continually replenished by some source:

New research reveals there is hope for Mars yet. The first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars indicates the planet is still alive, in either a biologic or geologic sense, according to a team of NASA and university scientists.

"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 Dr. 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."

Methane -- four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom -- is the main component of natural gas on Earth. It's of interest to astrobiologists because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane. "Right now, we don’t have enough information to tell if biology or geology -- or both -- is producing the methane on Mars," said Mumma. "But it does tell us that the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense. It's as if Mars is challenging us, saying, hey, find out what this means."


"On Earth, microorganisms thrive 2 to 3 kilometers (about 1.2 to 1.9 miles) beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. 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," said Mumma.

"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," said Mumma.

"Microbes that produced methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide were one of the earliest forms of life on Earth," noted Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which partially supported the research. "If life ever existed on Mars, it's reasonable to think that its metabolism might have involved making methane from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide."

Should we uncork the champagne? No, probably not, given that methane produced by geological processes could have been trapped until now in ice or below the surface. Thus, even if Mars is currently geologically dead, it could still be slowly outgassing accumulated methane. At the same time, this is exciting news and gives us new hope that the red planet may not actually be a dead planet.

* It's a moon of the planet Uranus. Uranus and Neptune really don't get the sort of props they deserve as gas giants, seeing as how they're almost always outshone by Jupiter and Saturn.

** If you're not troubled by the Fermi paradox, you haven't thought about it long enough.

*** Actually I was more polite than that but, really, what do you say when someone rejects physical evidence with blind faith?

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