Mars has been hitting the headlines lately as scientists reveal more and more about the Red Planet’s past. But could this latest piece of evidence really be it? Have scientists really found solid proof of life on Mars?
Strange methane emissions have been detected by NASA researchers in data collected by one of the rover Curiosity’s instruments, and scientists believe that they are being caused by life forms, most likely bacteria. On Earth, life forms are the primary producers of methane, although there could be other possible explanations.
Until these are ruled out, the possibility that bacteria are alive and well and living beneath the surface of Martian soil is being considered to be very likely. In a recent news article, Unknown Country reported that the essential building blocks for life were once available on the planet and now the methane could indicate that life is still present.
This could herald a truly momentous occasion – the first documented evidence of alien life.
‘This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,’ said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team.
‘There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.’
News of the latest discovery, made by combining two year’s worth of data from Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), has been reported in the journal Science. This is not the first time that methane has been detected on Mars, but the latest readings show unusual spikes in a very localised area rather than the normal background levels usually explained by non-biological causes such as sunlight degrading organic deposits left by meteors. It was thought that the spikes of methane would require an additional source, which was unlikely to be due to a recent impact by comet or asteroid.
In their published report, the team of US scientists led by Dr Chris Webster, from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, wrote: ‘The persistence of the high methane values over 60 sols (Martian days) and their sudden drop 47 sols later is not consistent with a well-mixed event, but rather with a local production or venting that, once terminated, disperses quickly.’
Other possibilities have been considered but ruled out; the short time-scale of the methane spikes did not indicate that the gas was being released from volcanic deposits trapped in ice, or from soil-bound gaseous methane.The team are keen to explore every potential cause for the methane spikes, but are becoming excited by the prospect that they are being caused by ‘methanogenesis’ – the formation of methane by microbial bugs known as methanogens.
They wrote: ‘Our measurements spanning a full Mars year indicate that trace quantities of methane are being generated on Mars by more than one mechanism or a combination of proposed mechanisms – including methanogenesis either today or released from past reservoirs, or both."
The secrets held on the Red Planet are slowly being revealed, and the search for life on Mars may yet prove to be fruitful.
Check out the latest Dreamland for more fascinating theories about the enigmatic planet.