News

More Hope For Life on Mars

New findings boost the chances for life forms on the Red Planet

December 17, 2014
NASA

Mars is roughly half the size of Earth. The length of a year on Mars is 687 Earth days.

There are no signs of little green men on Mars. But new discoveries offer a bit more hope that some form of life existed there in the past—and perhaps is still there in the present. Methane gas and water have been found on the Red Planet. The presence of both suggests at least the possibility of life.

The Mars rover Curiosity travels across the surface of Mars. A year after finding no evidence of methane gas on the Red Planet, scientists now say Curiosity recorded a burst of methane that lasted about two months.

NASA
The Mars rover Curiosity travels across the surface of Mars. A year after finding no evidence of methane gas on the Red Planet, scientists now say Curiosity recorded a burst of methane that lasted about two months.

According to a new report in the journal Science, the Mars rover Curiosity has detected spikes of methane in the Martian atmosphere. This gas is also found in Earth’s atmosphere, and comes from animal and plant life, and from the environment itself. If there’s methane in Mars’s atmosphere, where is it coming from? Scientists aren’t sure. But it marks a big change. In September 2013, Curiosity found almost no traces of methane in the Martian air. Just weeks later, however, the rover picked up a whiff of the gas.

“It took us by surprise,” says Christopher Webster of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California. He is the lead scientist for the instrument on the rover that detected the methane. Over the next two months, Webster says, “every time we looked there was methane.” Six weeks later, however, the methane was gone, and hasn’t been sniffed since. “It’s a fascinating episodic increase,” he says.

A Martian Mystery

The scientists don’t know whether the methane spikes are caused by some form of biological matter or by the geology of the planet. Christopher Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton, says it’s best not to be too hopeful about biology on the Red Planet. “Hopes for biology on Mars have had a way of disappearing once Martian chemistry has been better understood,” he says. “But figuring out what’s responsible for the methane is clearly a key astrobiological objective—whatever the answer turns out to be.”

Watery World

The discovery of water on Mars is nothing new. For decades, scientists have had evidence that it flowed across the surface of the planet billions of years ago. But according to another new report in Science, while the surface water on Mars seems to be long gone, there’s a lot more of it left than most people realize.

The Mars rover Curiosity drilled into this rock on May 19, 2013, and collected a powdered sample of material from inside.

NASA
The Mars rover Curiosity drilled into this rock on May 19, 2013, and collected a powdered sample of material from inside.

This report is also based on findings from Curiosity. Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Maryland, led the study. He says there is enough water on Mars “to cover the surface to a depth of [about 165 feet].”

It is not easy to reach this water. Most of it is locked up in ice at the planet’s poles. Some of it is part of the clay Curiosity dug into when it was roaming an area of Mars’s large Gale Crater.

But where there is (or was) water, there could be (or could have been) life.


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