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What’s This About Methane On Mars!?

Posted in astronomy, biology, personal views with tags , , on May 6, 2010 by cpolsonb

I have had at least a few people ask me directly “what exciting stuff is there left to discover in science?” Other than the obvious fact that there are definitely exciting answers to questions we haven’t even conceived of yet, there are also many major scientific mysteries answerable in this lifetime. I do not look think badly of these people, they likely haven’t had the exposure to learn about cutting edge modern scientific mysteries. It is also true that many of these mysteries, like those potentially answered by the LHC, require a deal of background knowledge to wrap your mind around. Nevertheless a few hours on wikipedia browsing major concepts in physics and astronomy is all anyone needs to appreciate the awesomeness of things like black holes, dark matter, entanglement, supernovae, exo-planets or the Higgs Boson.

This blog entry is about what I consider possibly the most exciting scientific question easily answerable in my lifetime. That question is “What’s with the methane on Mars!?”

What is so exciting about some gas leaking from Mars you might ask? First a little background. Methane on Mars was first discovered by a team at NASA back in 2003 using infrared telescopes fitted with spectrometry devices that break down incoming light into it’s constituent spectrum and can infer chemical composition from the signature or absorbed wavelength. This methane is being released annually (Martian annual) during the warmer periods at a number of locations. The gas is released in a series of plumes which can release as much as 19,000 tons of methane each!

So what does this all mean? Well we begin by considering all possible explanations for these methane plumes that scientists consider plausible. A likely explanation is that some geologic process is going on underneath Mars that is creating this methane. The only known way this could be happening on Mars is if water, carbon dioxide and the planet’s internal heat are converting iron oxide (rust) into serpentine minerals (common rock-forming hydrous magnesium iron phyllosilicate minerals). One major stumbling block with this explanation is that Mars is not thought to be geologically active and the required heat has not yet been found. It is possible that pockets of methane created in aeons past are stored beneath the surface and released annually as fissures form from cracking permafrost but this adds in another layer of complexity. There are other geologic questions that need to be answered before a complete explanation could be established and any such answer would still provide fascinating and as yet unknown information about ongoing activity on the Red Planet previously not thought to exist.

Another explanation, recently discounted by published research suggested that the methane might be left over on Mars from meteorites. Calculations have shown that the amount of meteorites needed to continually maintain the levels of methane found on Mars is far beyond what could be considered possible. There are other gaping holes in this hypothesis, such as why would the methane be confined to a few discrete pockets and why is it only being released annually. After considering the possible explanation of geologic activity and the unlikely explanation of meteoric activity we are left with one other major hypothesis.

LIFE!
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