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The Red Planet is not a Dead Planet

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Staff writer | Friday January 16, 2009 2:43PM ET
Mars MethaneMars today is a world of cold and lonely deserts, but there is evidence of a warmer and wetter past.


Dry riverbeds and minerals that form in the presence of water indicate water once flowed through Martian sands, say scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Since liquid water is required for all known forms of life, scientists wonder if life could have risen on Mars, and if it did, what became of it as the Martian climate changed.

New research reveals there is hope for Mars yet. The first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars indicates the planet is still alive, in either a biologic or geologic sense, according to a team of NASA and university scientists.

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, in NASA's press release. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."

Methane is the main component of natural gas on Earth. It's of interest to astrobiologists because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane. "Right now, we don’t have enough information to tell if biology or geology is producing the methane on Mars," said Mumma. "But it does tell us that the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense. It's as if Mars is challenging us, saying, hey, find out what this means."

If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface, where it's still warm enough for liquid water to exist. Liquid water, as well as energy sources and a supply of carbon, are necessary for all known forms of life.

"On Earth, microorganisms thrive 2 to 3 kilometers (about 1.2 to 1.9 miles) beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon," said Mumma.

"Microbes that produced methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide were one of the earliest forms of life on Earth," noted Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which partially supported the research. "If life ever existed on Mars, it's reasonable to think that its metabolism might have involved making methane from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide."

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