Life on Mars?!?!

Really?

Well… probably not but… possible.

I’m sure everyone has heard or read it (you have, right?) but the NASA has announced their summary of several years of observations of the Mars atmosphere – confirming they found methane (this was known since 2003 but they wanted to be sure).

(What is really cool is that all this research was done from Earth – just by pointing telescopes at Mars and measuring the spectroscopic data to find the methane. Well of course they’re doing the same nowadays with exoplanets lightyears away so maybe it’s not that cool after all…anyway)

So what’s going on is there is methane escaping from the surface of Mars and the two major (only?) explanations are 1) geological and 2) life. Life! Wow! What I understand so far is that the observations can be equally well explained by either process – I just don’t know which they deem is more likely.

Still, I’m really excited! Just the fact that they have found something that could be life – instead of ruling it out – is great! I am pretty positive that IF life were to be found on Mars, that would be THE single biggest scientific discovery of all time, period.

Now what?

The next step, as far as I understand, will however be somewhat of a problem. If this is life, it will be microbes hiding beneath what could be kilometers of rock. Looking at the equipment necessary to ‘drill baby drill’ to several kilometers deep, it seems unlikely that we will be getting straight to these bugs (if they’re there). Plus the risk is a bit big – imagine finding nothing but dead rock after spending over a decade and several billions of $$$… everyone involved would look positively stupid.

So I get that they will extend their analysis to determine whether the methane is of organic or inorganic origin, plus a search for other compounds that could hint at life. All really exciting as far as I’m concerned – I’ll be keeping an eye on their progress!

(Scientific stuff below the fold)

This is the news article on Science Magazine website

And the abstract of the article (article is password-protected):

“Living systems produce more than 90% of Earth’s atmospheric methane; the balance is of geochemical origin. On Mars, methane could be a signature of either origin. Using high-dispersion infrared spectrometers at three ground-based telescopes, we measured methane and water vapor simultaneously on Mars over several longitude intervals in (northern) early- and late-summer 2003 and near vernal equinox 2006. When present, methane occurred in extended plumes and the maxima of latitudinal profiles imply that the methane was released from discrete regions. At northern mid-summer, the principal plume contained ~19,000 metric tons of methane and the estimated source strength (0.6 kg s-1) was comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point (Santa Barbara, CA).

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