Mars, a planet still firmly lodged in our sights, has pulled us closer with promises of life. So, how does this planet get so much attention? It’s all about methane on Mars!
Last year, science proclaimed that the discovery of substantial amounts of methane gas on the red planet was very unlikely. Now, a year later, researchers have reversed what was said and now state that methane gases, containing the basic building blocks of life, have been found on Mars, in large amounts! In fact, large plumes of methane gas, lasting for about two months, announced its existence during the last Rover expedition.
Discoveries: now and then
It was never stated that methane was absent on Mars, just very small measurements of the gases were ever found. Cosmic dust on Mars contains organic compounds, which are routinely broken down by ultraviolet light. This creates a small amount of methane, too little to cause speculation of substantial building block material. This year, however, the amount doubled, which caused scientists to really take notice.
The differences were observed, starting in November of 2013, when methane levels spiked. They continued to retain high levels through January of 2014. As they tapered off from there, the levels began to rise again in June, of the same year. Unfortunately, there were no measurements recorded of the previous year, between June 2013 and the spike of November 2013, and Sushil K. Atreya of the University of Michigan suggests that it is very possible that levels remained high that entire 6 month period. Now, that is something to be curious about!
If methane was quickly appearing and then disappearing again, it seems the gases are being used in some way. Scientists say that something is creating methane, and something else is using the methane as well – like a natural life cycle.
There are two explanations for this exciting new discovery. One explanation is that the methane gases could be the waste products of certain microbes. Mission project scientist John P. Grotzinger agrees that this theory is a logical explanation for the presence of the gases.
The second explanation could revolve around a geological process called serpentinizaion, where rock emits both gases and water as result to natural changes. If methane gases are indeed a product of geological changes, hydrothermal areas would be a prime location to search for life.
Life or no life
Another explanation suggests that measurements could simply be off. Although this is a possibility as well, it is very unlikely. What we do know for certain is that the theory of life on mars is back on the table for discussion, according to Dr. Grotzinger. Considering the presence of methane detected in 2003 and then absent in 2005, reinforces the fact that some form of life cycle exists on Mars. Along with recent discoveries of organic materials found in Martian mudstone, the outlook is very positive indeed.
Basically, we yet have much to do. In order to conclusively find the answers, we must sift through further findings and measurements. One question has been answered, which leads to even more questions about life on other planets. Are we alone or are we surrounded by a myriad of living creatures, yet to be discovered? Is Methane gas the hint that will unravel those mysteries? You decide!