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Life or just gas: NASA Rover spots methane on Mars

Life or just gas: NASA Rover spots methane on Mars

SAN FRANCISCO: NASA’s robotic rover, Curiosity, has detected stable wafts of methane on mars fuelling speculation that the gas may be coming from a form of life on the red planet.
Methane is a familiar chemical, whether you know it by that name or not. It’s the major component of natural gas, which heats my house and possibly yours too. Methane is also a large part of human gas, which means I could start this article with a fart joke if I really wanted to. Lakes on Titan are full of methane, and the chemical is a major component of the giant planets Jupiter, Neptune, and so forth.
Mars is a different case, and an interesting one: it doesn’t have a lot of methane in its atmosphere at any given moment. However, several probes—most recently the Curiosity rover—have measured methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane on Mars could possibly reveal that the planet is more active geologically than it seems, or even that it harbors microscopic life.
While the most exciting option would be Martian life, what we have is the chemistry, which isn’t enough by itself to tell us where the methane came from. The authors of the new study, published this week in Science, are rightfully agnostic on that point, even though others aren’t being so cautious.
Curiosity researchers analyzed the chemistry in Mars’ atmosphere over 20 months, and found four measurements with more than 10 times the normal level of methane. The increased amount was present for a period of about two months with normal amounts before and after. That indicated a relatively rapid increase in methane, followed by an equally fast decrease. These results are consistent with results from probes such as the orbiting Mars Express spacecraft and the Mariner 7 mission in 1969, as well as Earth-based telescopes. Whatever caused the increase is unknown.
All of this depends on Martian methane being a real thing, and that’s where it could get sticky. Kevin Zahnle, Richard S. Freedman, and David C. Catling argued persuasively in 2010 that there’s no realistic way for Mars’ atmosphere to get rid of that much methane that quickly, even if it can be produced on a short timescale. Instead, they argue that the methane analysis from other probes is based on assumptions of how the data is processed, and could be entirely an artificial result.