A close-up of Mars taken by the Hubble
Space Telescope.

Methane “Belch” Ignites Yet Another Discussion of Life on Mars

January 16, 2009 01:31 PM
by Cara McDonough
A mysterious “belch” of gas on the red planet is potentially more evidence of life. But will scientists ever definitively prove the existence of alien life forms?

Mars: Methane Gas, Rocks, and … Aliens?

A new NASA study indicates that 21,000 tons of methane gas was released during the late summer of 2003. The finding is exciting, as it could indicate microbial life on the planet.

Or not. The gas “could come from rocks,” reports the Associated Press.

Still, researchers are hopeful that the finding could be another clue in the growing search for life on the planet. “This raises the probability substantially that life was there or still survives at the present,” study author Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told the AP. But he added that much more evidence was needed before jumping to that conclusion.

But what does the finding mean? ScienceDaily explains that methane is the main component of natural gas on earth, and that “organisms release much of Earth’s methane as they digest nutrients.” But other geological processes, such as iron oxidation, can produce methane as well. Hence the caution that the methane may have come not from living things, but from rocks.

The AP compares the methane “belch” to a similar occurrence in Santa Barbara, Calif., when the gas is emitted from decaying life on the ocean floor.

Mumma said she believes that it’s slightly more probably that the methane came from a life form than from geological occurrences, and that methane is not only a byproduct of decaying life, but food for other life forms. Therefore, the methane “hotspots” are important places to explore.

Researchers are hesitant, however, to celebrate, especially as some other recent findings regarding life on Mars have not yielded definitive results about life on the planet. Alan Boss, an expert on looking for life on other planets, said that now “we can start the even more contentious debate about the source.”

Background: Remaining calm amid many discoveries

By now, the public is used to hearing about probable life of Mars, due to a slew of recent discoveries indicating the possibility.

In August of 2008, researchers confirmed the existence of water and ice on the planet. While the finding was a huge boon for those insistent that life did once exist there, researchers explained that the water did not necessarily mean Mars is a habitable place for life forms; it simply means that carbon and other molecules were present.

The water discovery was perhaps the most exciting, but definitely not the only news from Mars researchers in recent months. In July, a team from Brown University released a study saying that the planet may have been covered mostly in water during its first 600 million-700 million years, and that those “benign seas” may have been suitable for life. In May, the Mars Phoenix Lander reached Mars in order to search the topsoil of the planet, looking for signs of life.

Historical Context: Mars fascination

The red planet has been a point of interest for the public and scientists alike for years, as the rumor of life on Mars perpetrates itself, never quite dying out. Researchers rejoiced in January 2004 when the NASA rover Opportunity landed on the planet, joining its twin, Spirit. The two rovers collected samples from the planet’s surface in a search for possible life, or evidence of past life.

NASA provides a full history of its Mars exploration program, including details of past missions to the planet as well as current efforts, on its Web site.

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