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Space Science

The Mystery of the Missing Methane 98

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-find-your-lack-of-cows-disturbing dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Astrobiology Magazine reports that NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered something odd about GJ 436b, a planet about the size of Neptune located 33 light-years away, circling the star Gliese 436. The mystery? GJ 436b lacks methane, an ingredient common to many of the planets in our solar system. Methane is present on our life-bearing planet, manufactured primarily by microbes living in cows, and all of the giant planets in our solar system have methane too, despite their lack of cows. Spitzer was able to detect the faint glow of GJ 436b by watching it slip behind its star, an event called a secondary eclipse. As the planet disappears, the total light observed from the star system drops, and the diference is then measured to find the brightness of the planet at various wavelengths. Eventually, a larger space telescope could use the same kind of technique to search smaller, Earth-like worlds for methane and other chemical signs of life, such as water, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Adam Showman, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, says the 'provocative result' raises questions about the evolution of this planet, as well as the possibility that its atmosphere might represent an entirely new class of atmospheres that has never been explored."
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The Mystery of the Missing Methane

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  • Sign of life? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @01:43PM (#31976090) Homepage
    Is this a sign of life? The calculations for how much methane should be in the atmosphere are based off what results in a chemical equilibrium. However, active metabolic entities (life) can move things very far off equilibrium. Thus, for example, Earth has a lot more oxygen in the atmosphere than would be expected from a simple set of equilibrium calculations. So, an observer could tentatively conclude that something weird, such as plant life, might be about. This imbalance between the expected and observed methane levels may be due to extraterrestrial life.
  • by kc8apf (89233) <kc8apf@@@kc8apf...net> on Sunday April 25, 2010 @02:39PM (#31976584) Homepage

    No one said those microorganisms are still alive. If they are all dead, there isn't life.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 25, 2010 @06:01PM (#31978428)

    You must be new here. Grammar Nazi's get so fucking caught up on the most trivial of errors they can't actually read and comprehend posts, let alone have enough understanding to mentally fill in words that were whiffed by the OP by should logically have been included.

    *Trap is set*

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