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Mars Space Science

Martian Methane May Be Created By Lifeforms 297

Posted by kdawson
from the little-green-bugs dept.
Following our recent discussions about the growing evidence pointing to possible life on Mars, reader skywatcher2501 writes with news of a study that has ruled out one possible explanation for the levels of methane seen on that planet — that it might be replenished by disintegrating meteors entering the atmosphere. So two theories remain: either the gas is created as a by-product of reactions between volcanic rock and water, or it is a by-product of a lifeform's metabolism.
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Martian Methane May Be Created By Lifeforms

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  • by Glock27 (446276) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @04:58PM (#30370178)
    Another possible explanation might be ancient underground methane deposits leaking into the Martian atmosphere...if this has been ruled out, how?

    It seems possible that life existed in the distant past on Mars, leaving behind methane deposits much like oil and natural gas deposits here on Earth...

  • Re:I do hope... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by oldspewey (1303305) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:08PM (#30370332)
    It's not just religious people who attempt to rationalize [amazon.com] the fact Earth may be the only place with intelligent life.
  • Re:Is it possible? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Narcocide (102829) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:11PM (#30370376) Homepage

    Yes and I think it is also theoretically possible that there was life on mars until about half an hour after the first probe landed.

  • by jameskojiro (705701) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:16PM (#30370456) Journal

    Carbon offsets are for Methane too as Methane is C(H4)...

  • Re:I do hope... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by blincoln (592401) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:20PM (#30370490) Homepage Journal

    Almost as good as the BBC TV series...

    A little off on a tangent, but I was just watching another BBC series (Planet Earth - I know, I'm a little late to that party), and there are numerous extremophiles covered in it. I knew about some of them already, but I was particularly surprised at the bacteria and animals that live in naturally-occurring sulfuric acid.
    I'd been doing a little reading about bacteria that live off of the sulfur cycle (as opposed to the carbon cycle) already because my multispectral photos of the hotsprings at Yellowstone [beneaththewaves.net] reminded me of NASA's imagery of Io and I wanted to see if it were even possible that there was more than a superficial similarity at work, but I had no idea there were larger life forms (e.g. fish) that make that sort of environment their home.
    Life seems to have found a way to thrive in every possible bizarre environment here on Earth. I suspect that except for planets and moons that are incredibly isolated in some way, we'll find at least microorganisms on many of them. Of course, actually confirming that would be mind-bogglingly-important news, but I wouldn't be surprised.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:27PM (#30370562)
    There is a definite pattern to these press releases. If they already know something and want to very slowly let the public in on it, it would look exactly like this. Water on the moon, methan on Mars, etc. Instead of slowly acclimating the public to the idea of extraterrestrial life via all these little baby steps, why don't they just tell us what they know? Obviously there's no civilizations on Mars or the moon so we are talking about microscopic life-forms here. Are they afraid there's going to be rioting in the streets if they tell the public that they believe there is microbial life on Mars? How silly. For once I wish this government would treat us like adults. Adults would respond to such a prospect with fascination, not fear.
  • by oldspewey (1303305) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:27PM (#30370564)
    The latest issue of WorldWatch magazine had an interesting piece on the contribution of methane to AGW ... the general conclusion was that convincing humans to alter their diet (less/no meat) will have more impact than convincing them to alter their driving habits.
  • Re:Questions: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vlm (69642) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:31PM (#30370602)

    The problem is that on mars all methane should vanish in months due to oxidizing soil. Therefore something must be replenishing it.

    Its a more complicated problem than that. First of all, there is no viable explanation for a source, assuming no lifeforms on mars, no active volcanoes, not enough meteors... Secondly, methane is localized and produced at weird rates, almost like weather... errr growing seasons... Third, methane is photochemically unstable in UV, it should all disappear in a couple centuries, except it is measured as disappearing much more quickly, VERY coincidentally about the timeframe of one martian year, so grasping at straws, it must be "oxidizing soil" or something. Fourthly the ESA guys claim when they detect methane, it also coincidentally comes along with yummy water vapor (actually, probably fizzy carbonated water crossed with stinky swamp gas)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmosphere_of_Mars#Methane [wikipedia.org]

    Now it is refreshing after the quack climatologists basically making stuff up to "prove" their hypothesis, to see that real scientists studying mars are very carefully and appropriately skeptical about declaring martian life. But eventually Occams Razor kicks in and the complicated non-life workarounds become more ridiculous than admitting it makes more sense to assume there's life on mars. I think that tipping point is extremely close.

  • by jameskojiro (705701) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:35PM (#30370656) Journal

    Obviously the solution is to genetically engineer the bacteria in ruminant stomachs to produce no methane....

  • Re:I do hope... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sznupi (719324) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @05:52PM (#30370888) Homepage

    Though the folks you mention are different in that they don't dismiss it on the grounds of ancient myths.

    They explore the possibility.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @06:09PM (#30371140)

    I wonder if the pattern to the press releases has anything to do with the pace at which scientific research takes place?

    It has everything to do with that. I'll tell you about that pace because it has happened as a repeating pattern throughout the history of science. Most scientists don't seem to appreciate its implications, but any scientist worthy of the name would.

    A few pioneers usually discover something that does not fit the currently accepted models of the way the world works. They are ridiculed, marginalized, ignored, and otherwise relegated to the fringe and treated as either lunatics or heretics. Often their papers are refused publication, they are denied access to shared scientific resources such as observatories, etc. Some decades later, the mainstream catches up, old models of how the world works are discarded and replaced by better ones, and with them, the notions of what is "impossible" and therefore unworthy of serious investigation are also discarded and replaced by better ones. Then their work is re-examined and it is discovered that they were not crazy, just ahead of their time.

    The real arrogance is that each generation of scientists thinks that this time we've finally got it all figured out. It doesn't occur to them that such paradigm shifts have happened before and will happen again. So they are just as quick to dismiss novel ideas instead of investigating them as the scientists who came before them. In other words, they learn absolutely nothing from the history of science. Like others who fail to learn from their history, they are doomed to repeat that history. This has the effect of retarding the pace of advancement and making rogues of people who were courageous enough to question the norm and therefore should properly be regarded as heroes or pioneers. In the 400-year+ history of science as we know it, just imagine the progress we could have made by now if this pattern only happened once and everyone learned from it afterwards and decided not to be so hostile to new ideas.

    So yes, it's quite possible that elements in our government or elsewhere might know that there are extraterrestrial microbes. The problem is to trust the people enough to be open about this instead of viewing it as a "public panic" style of national security issue. Then the problem is getting the scientific establishment to overcome its own inertia and seriously investigate the idea. All of this takes time, time during which the public is generally going to be left in the dark. I suspect that those same elements are executing a policy of gradually getting everyone used to the idea, and if you can entertain that possibility, you'll find that all the recent press releases fit the pattern.

  • Re:I do hope... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sznupi (719324) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @06:14PM (#30371194) Homepage

    Personally I don't equate extremely high, IMHO, chances of life being widespread in the Universe with the chances of it being intelligent.

    However...don't forget that we are not the only intelligent specie on Earth. We consider many mammals, birds, even some cephalopods to be intelligent. Not human-level intelligence obviously, and nowhere near technical civilization levels required by current SETI methods...but still intelligent.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @06:24PM (#30371316)

    Well, James Lovelock, in his Gaia book from the 80's, states that he compared
    the
    distance from thermodynamic equilibrium of the gas environments of Earth
    and Mars ( he did it for NASA) and found...

    There is life on Earth, and it sends the gas environment FAR from thermodynamic equilibrium!

    There is no evidence for life on Mars because the gas environment is very close to, if not at,
    thermodynamic equilibrium. (NASA has a sad, and fires his ass.)

    Let me know if this study changes his conclusions.

  • by holmstar (1388267) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @06:45PM (#30371554)
    But the leading theory is that mars' core is relatively cool now. I don't know if that means that it is too cool for the aforementioned chemical process, but it should be considered.
  • Re:Or did they? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by scorp1us (235526) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @07:02PM (#30371734) Journal

    That is what is being ruled out. The location (deeo inside) and our understanding of atmospheric entry would mean these fossils would have to have been in the original rock, then atmospheric entry would have formed a coating that would provide a clear delineation between what came with it, and what got there later.

    Also, the fossils would be of different minerals if Earth had provided the materials.

  • Re:I do hope... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sznupi (719324) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @08:31PM (#30372630) Homepage

    Well, I didn't really see that restriction per se,...

    By the standards of a truly advanced interstellar civilization, we must be quite barbaric indeed. They would be wise to stay away from us, because if they are benevolent, then any interaction with us would likely be to their detriment.

    (emphasis mine) ...just that you seem to equal being trult advanced interstellar civilization with being benevolent.

    And one doesn't mean the other, that's what I was saying (as a matter of fact, from what we see on our planet, being benevolent is exactly the way to never expand, being consumed eventually)

    As for the above long comment of yours...even its length and time it took to write makes me feel obliged to respond.

    While the ideas you present are certainly attractive, I don't think they work in the real world. We have plenty of examples that they don't really work on Earth, why the rest of the Universe should be significantly different? Contrary to what many people believe, there is most likely no "cosmic force" that guards the order of things. Just laws of physics. Just survival.

    You ignore that FTL is most likely impossible in our Universe, and interstellar/intergalactic travel (or even communication) is damn hard - that's the true reason we don't have any visitors, benevolent or malevolent (if they even exist).

    Heck, even the distinction you make between benevolence, malevolence and the will to contact might be incorrect - benevolent (according to their morality and values!) species might contact us, try to influence us in a way that they think is correct, but ultimately is harming us (we did such things on Earth). Malevolent species OTOH might just as well prefer to keep their existence a secret, for surprise attack. Attack which hasn't happened because of the vastness of space.

    As a matter of fact, is will to survive really malevolent? ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Killing_Star [wikipedia.org] )

    Existing concepts for FTL require such vast amounts of energy that any civilizations who can do it just to visit us, will have technology somehow freeing them from the classical scarceness of resources. And access to it still doesn't mean they would have to be benevolent. We can destroy our civilization, and yet we haven't done so. But you wouldn't argue that we are a "good"...especially in how we treat inferior species

    Yes, those are beautiful ideas. But don't expect them. That's the fastest way to find out about malevolence of somebody.

    And please, don't present the fairytale of our current states being in opposition to the people. Who do you think gets to positions of power in most cases? Governments are a simply a reflection of society.

    You also forget how highly hostile and dangerous is space itself. Again, you just have to look at our world to realize that "kindness" is very strongly inversely correlated to the hostility of environment. We are "civilized" in the West because we can afford to be. In vast areas of the Earth you wouldn't survive long against "malevolent" (one might argue it's simply "survivalist") individuals. They would also outcompete you in space...

    And all this while limiting ourselves to strong anthropocentrism. Technological space-faring civilization might so unlike to us that we will interpret any its actions as malevolent (remember that our criteria of morality came from living inside small groups of primates). What if for example they are a hive mind, consuming everything they can, with the perception of the world summed up by "me vs. all that is unknown, bad"?

  • by mbone (558574) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @09:10PM (#30372928)

    Neither the source nor the sink of Martian methane is understood, as was discussed by Lefèvre & Forget in Observed variations of methane on Mars unexplained by known atmospheric chemistry and physics [nature.com] (Nature 460, 720-723 (6 August 2009)). Unlike the statement in the spacefellowship.com writeup, the observed methane plumes require a very quick absorption of methane on the surface, which means that the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is not " a few hundred years" but months or less, maybe even hours or less. Since the shorter the lifetime, the larger the production required to match the observed plumes, we don't know the methane production on Mars to within even 3 orders of magnitude.

    We don't know the source, we don't know the sink, and we don't know the production rate, so I personally don't see how biology can be ruled out, despite the editorializing in Lefèvre & Forget.

  • by mbone (558574) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @09:38PM (#30373112)

    Several troubles with that idea. First, note that the Methane production rates quoted in the original article are much too small based on the observed Martian Methane plumes and their implications. Given that

    - it's hard to see how serpentinization explains the observed intermittent methane plumes

    - it doesn't explain at all the sink of the methane, which has to be very powerful (to explain the observed plumes)

    - the production estimates by Lefèvre & Forget [nature.com] (Nature 460, 720-723 (6 August 2009)) are large for this explanation :

    This optimum quantitative agreement with the methane observations is obtained with 150,000 t of methane emitted by the sporadic source. This amount is comparable to the yearly geochemical production of methane by serpentinization (50,000–130,000 t yr-1) along the entire Mid-Atlantic Ridge on Earth.

    Of course, there is lots of water along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Where is there a comparable amount of liquid water on Mars coming in contact with new olivine ? To me, this seems like a stretch.

    By the way, 150,000 tonnes per year (as a rough guess of Martian production) is about 0.1% of terrestrial biological production, which does not seem outlandishly large or small for a hypothetical Martian biosphere.

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