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Mars NASA Space Science

Methane Survey Reveals Mars Is Far From 'Dead' 171

Posted by Soulskill
from the mars-has-a-secret-cow-level dept.
astroengine writes "The first planet-wide studies of methane on Mars — incorporating billions of measurements made by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft — shows gas concentrations peak in autumn and plummet in winter. Scientists have found significantly higher methane concentrations in the Tharsis, Elysium and Arabia Terrae regions. Tharsis and Elysium are home to Mars' most massive volcanoes and Arabia Terrae has large quantities of subterranean frozen water. This indicates the gas could be generated by geological or biological activity. 'It could be geology or biology, but it is not coming from another source. There is a seasonal pattern, so it could only be a local origin,' Sergio Fonti, with Italy's Universita del Salento, told Discovery News."
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Methane Survey Reveals Mars Is Far From 'Dead'

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  • Good news (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 2names (531755) on Monday September 27, 2010 @01:41PM (#33714038)
    I'm glad they found this type of cyclic activity. The sooner we find complex life off-Earth the better.
    • I was hoping for a Farnsworth joke :(
    • by Tumbleweed (3706) *

      I'm glad they found this type of cyclic activity. The sooner we find complex life off-Earth the better.

      It's not obvious to me why it's good for us to find complex off-Earth life. Unless it's a technology advanced species that can help us with our problems, I don't see any benefit to finding complex off-Earth life at all. What am I missing?

      • Re:Good news (Score:4, Insightful)

        by saider (177166) on Monday September 27, 2010 @02:59PM (#33715048)

        It would be another step back from the "we-are-the-sole-reason-for-the-universe's-existence" mindset. Reducing humanities self-centered leanings leaves some more room for a "we-are-a-part-of-the-universe" attitude that tends to promote a more responsible approach to resource management.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Tumbleweed (3706) *

          It would be another step back from the "we-are-the-sole-reason-for-the-universe's-existence" mindset. Reducing humanities self-centered leanings leaves some more room for a "we-are-a-part-of-the-universe" attitude that tends to promote a more responsible approach to resource management.

          I don't think that would have the impact your hoping for unless it was intelligent life that was more technologically advanced than us. Anything less would be treated just like Western civilization treated (and continues to t

          • Biblically, God made at least earth for humans. Not "white guys who claim to be Christian."

            Just wanted to clear that up. I know there are plenty of people who distort and malign it, and I know established 'Christian' religions, who looked nothing like 'little Christs', have perverted it immensely (dark ages, etc)...

            (to make that distortion even worse and stupider, most of the Bible takes place in the "East," not the West. Heh.)

          • Be sure to remind as many Christians and Rednecks as possible...

            Also pull it out next time somebody says "towel head". Remind them that Baby Jesus was a towel head and they should be more respectful.

            • by Schemat1c (464768)

              Jesus was an Arab

              If he ever existed at all he actually would have been a Jew but since he never did exist the point is moot.

              • by sodul (833177)

                Uh ? There are historical records of Jesus existence. What make you say he never existed ? I'm not claiming the miracles did happen, just the fact that the man that we now call Jesus did exist. Some facts that I am pretty certain are accurate:
                - he was born of a woman about 2000 y/ago (give or take 30y)
                - he preached and had some followers ... what we would call a sect these days
                - in Jerusalem he made some fuss about the temple fees
                - it pissed local religious authorities who ca

          • by fifedrum (611338)

            western civilization is hardly the first civilization to cultivate this sort of attitude of genocidal disregard. nor, frankly, the most destructive or even most recent, as there are ongoing disputes of this nature currently raging.

            citation? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gengis_khan [wikipedia.org], http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_invasion_of_India [wikipedia.org], http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_revolution [wikipedia.org]

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Schemat1c (464768)

        It's not obvious to me why it's good for us to find complex off-Earth life. Unless it's a technology advanced species that can help us with our problems, I don't see any benefit to finding complex off-Earth life at all. What am I missing?

        Hmm, here are a few reasons: The Vatican, Jerusalem, Mecca, the southern half of the United States, etc.

    • I'm glad they found this type of cyclic activity. The sooner we find complex life off-Earth the better.

      Until you find out that the life is actually biological contaminants that hitched a ride on the Soviet Mars-2 probe. Here on Earth bacteria reproduce every 30 minutes or so (sometimes less) Imagine if the bacteria on Mars only reproduced at half that rate due to less than ideal conditions. 38 years, exponential growth rate.

      Slow down their reproduction to just once an hour, you would have 2^333108 bacteri

    • by slapout (93640)

      Why? What does "complex life off-Earth" imply?

  • OH COME ON (Score:2, Interesting)

    by iONiUM (530420)

    Don't get me wrong, I like hearing about space updates. But it feels like there's been a ton of "there may be signs that may indicate signs of biological life from stuff we may or may not have overlooked before. Also? It might not be caused by a biological thing."

    I want a "we found fucking life" article. Stop teasing me with this nonsense.

    • Re:OH COME ON (Score:5, Informative)

      by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday September 27, 2010 @01:52PM (#33714204) Journal

      I think the unspoken belief in the scientific community is that it's pointing very heavily towards life on Mars, but the rule of thumb in science is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", and claims don't get much more extraordinary than the claim that life has been found on another world. Necessity and prudence require that the experts couch their language and manage expectations until we can gather that extraordinary evidence. Since there are other ways that the methane could be formed, in particular geological activity (which in its own way is pretty extraordinary considering Mars' lack of a magnetic field has long been seen as a sign that it is a geologically dead world, lacking a molten or semi-molten core), until incontrovertible evidence has been gathered there will always be the need to list alternative explanations, no matter how much they piss on the parade.

      Quite frankly we're not going to know until we find some Martian life, and that's going to take a good deal of time. We're decades away from being able to gather direct evidence, unless we get very lucky.

      • by X0563511 (793323)

        I think probably the largest "thing" a Star Trek like real-life would have is not space travel, warp fields, transporters etc...

        But sensors that can detect "life signs"

        One can dream.

        • Sensors that detect for life signs are available...if your looking for Earth based life forms. Unless there's some universal signs with all life in the universe, how do you know what to look for when by its very definition, life is alien?

          • Re:OH COME ON (Score:4, Informative)

            by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday September 27, 2010 @03:43PM (#33715548) Journal

            You start by not defining living systems as any specific type of chemistry, but rather certain activities; ie. metabolism, reproduction/replication, respiration, excretion. While the only systems we know of that do that from observation is carbon-based life on Earth, we can conceive of alternatives, whether simply using other forms of carbon chemistry, or even possible silicon-based life.

            The risk, of course, of very generalized definitions is that you could catch chemical activity that isn't life, but I think the above tests would be close enough to be highly suggestive that the chemical interactions you're seeing are biotic in nature, regardless of the precise form the chemistry itself takes. I think we're sufficiently good enough of recognizing this things to not confuse even simply living systems with more mundane chemical processes like crystallization, oxidization, etc.

      • Re:OH COME ON (Score:4, Insightful)

        by arth1 (260657) on Monday September 27, 2010 @02:10PM (#33714470) Homepage Journal

        I think it's pretty certain that there is life on Mars now [spacedaily.com], as NASA didn't take any extraordinary measures to eradicate all possible forms of life from the probes until 1995 and the Mars Orbiter. Earlier, a memo was issued [nih.gov], but not much was done. Up to 10^5 possibly surviving microbes were permissible on the earlier crafts, if I remember correctly.

        It's a shame, as the planet can never be uncontaminated and studied as a truly lifeless planet.

        • Re:OH COME ON (Score:5, Insightful)

          by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday September 27, 2010 @02:12PM (#33714488) Journal

          If life is responsible for the seasonal methane fluctuations, I doubt very much that it could be explained by anything hitching a ride on our spacecraft.

          • by justthisdude (779510) on Monday September 27, 2010 @03:26PM (#33715366)
            Of course the episodic bursts of methane came form the global surveyor that surveyed the planet: as every middle schooler knows, "whoever smelt it dealt it".
          • by izomiac (815208)
            I also don't think it's likely, but it's easily possible. Some bacteria have a doubling time less than 30 minutes, so if they found a suitable environment without competition they'd reproduce at nearly their maximal rate for quite some time.

            OTOH, the whole natural selection thing comes into play since otherwise, in 15 years, they'd weight a lot more than Mars itself. I'd give a number, but didn't have a calculator handy that could handle 2^(15*365.25*24*2), which is how many descendants a single bacter
            • by dryeo (100693)

              It took a lot longer to first oxygenate the Earth. Much oxygen was tied up in things like iron before there was any free in the atmosphere. IIRC it was millions of years.
              I think that you're remembering that it only takes 2000 years to replace the oxygen in the atmosphere now that all the oxygen sinks are full.

              • by arth1 (260657)

                It was likely quicker than you think [wikipedia.org].

                • by dryeo (100693)

                  The Wikipedia article agrees with me, the second paragraph,

                  Photosynthesis was producing oxygen both before and after the GOE. The difference was that before the GOE, organic matter and dissolved iron chemically captured any free oxygen. The GOE was the point when these minerals became saturated and could not capture any more oxygen. The excess free oxygen started to accumulate in the atmosphere.

                  Note that oxygen was being produced before the GOE. At that it says that the first oxygen producing organism may have appeared 3500 million years ago, which is about 1100 million years before the GOE.
                  The discussion is about how quick Earth originating lifeforms could alter the Martian atmosphere. Based on the Earths history it is not instant because first all the oxygen sinks have to saturated.
                  Also re the 2000 years oxygen

                  Without a draw-down, oxygen could accumulate very rapidly: for example, at today's rates of photosynthesis (which are admittedly much greater than those in the plant-free Precambrian), modern atmospheric O2 levels could be produced in around 2,000 years.[4]

                  Note that is at today's rat

        • by MaWeiTao (908546)

          Even if all current life on Mars were there solely because of our probes I think it goes to show just how hardy life is. Not only did it survive the vacuum of space, but it's been able to not only survive a few decades on Mars but thrive. That being the case, it's rational to assume that we will find life elsewhere in the universe.

        • by Belial6 (794905)
          Truly lifeless planets are common. Planets other than earth with life are not. Even planets that have life but did not originate life locally are pretty rare as far as we can tell.
        • by jpapon (1877296)
          Well if that's the case, then the upside is that no matter what we do to our own species and planet, at least we succeeded in seeding life on a new planet.

          Panspermia, or actually, exogenesis ftw!

          Actually, I suppose this would be "homogenesis". Sweet!

      • Quite frankly we're not going to know until we find some Martian life, and that's going to take a good deal of time. We're decades away from being able to gather direct evidence, unless we get very lucky.

        First we'd need to figure out where to look for them in the first place. Just speculating here but if there were subterranean pockets of liquid water and the methane is bubbling up through porous rock into the atmosphere, getting down there to find proof would be very, very difficult. But if it's lichen clinging to rocks and we just weren't looking in the right spot, that would be easier to find.

        • We can make educated guesses. The surface of Mars, even disregarding low temperatures, is very hostile, with little atmosphere and no magnetic field, it receives a lot more harmful radiation than the surface of Earth does. That radiation makes life on the surface less probable, though maybe not impossible, but it seems more likely that you would find life beneath the surface.

          It's all guesswork, of course, but it's quite possible that extant life on Mars may have long ago migrated deep below the surface, w

      • by khallow (566160)

        I think the unspoken belief in the scientific community is that it's pointing very heavily towards life on Mars

        Doubtful. Until they rule out serpentinitization processes [wikipedia.org], there's a simpler explanation than "life did it".

      • That's not enough? A entire planet is 'breathing' methane. I'd say that's grounds for some serious exploration.
      • I think the unspoken belief in the scientific community is that it's pointing very heavily towards life on Mars, but the rule of thumb in science is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", and claims don't get much more extraordinary than the claim that life has been found on another world

        Mars had a wet, warm history, there is liquid water even on its surface (albeit in small quantities), it had sufficient time to evolve life (more than the appearance of life on earth took), and it also had a

    • The announcement you seek may not be framed in time with the boundaries of yours, or any our our lives. It's not a Hollywood theatrical preview with a release date known by studio executives. It's science, and perhaps one day that answer may come, or never. And it may come in an answer you do not desire.

      There's no cat that we know of waiting to be released from its proverbial bag.

    • We can give you the definitive "we found fucking life" article once we have boots on the ground. Until then it will be "we have evidence there may be life". Even the new rover (which is soon to launch) might not produce a definitive answer, unless they get lucky...
    • by billcopc (196330)

      This seems like a "Please don't nerf NASA, we're on the verge of finding shit" kind of press release. As much as the prospect of expanding our cosmic knowledge is alluring to me, I think right now the world has some far more pressing matters to resolve down here, before we start infecting other planets with the disease that is modern society.

  • by gearsmithy (1869466) on Monday September 27, 2010 @01:45PM (#33714098)
    Martians label Earth "stupidest planet ever" for measuring their farts billions of times...
    • by arivanov (12034)

      That is still better than them grokking us. At least according to Michael Valentine Smith and he is probably the ultimate authority on that.

  • The Irregular Webcomic guy has the answer:

    http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/393.html [irregularwebcomic.net]

  • by davevr (29843) on Monday September 27, 2010 @01:58PM (#33714304) Homepage
    Someone call Mazlan Othman asap!
    • by gparent (1242548)
      Hell yeah, that was quick. Maybe we should wait until Netcraft confirms it before claiming something isn't 'dead' though.
  • by IndustrialComplex (975015) on Monday September 27, 2010 @01:59PM (#33714320)

    FTFA: 'It could be geology or biology, but it is not coming from another source.'

    Another source like what? Comets hitting the planet? Isn't geology pretty freaking broad for a category?

    That's like looking at a rock on the Earth and saying "Well, we are pretty sure that it either formed here on earth, or it is a meteorite."

    • by ceejayoz (567949) <cj@ceejayoz.com> on Monday September 27, 2010 @02:05PM (#33714402) Homepage Journal

      Both are big deals - Mars isn't believed to be geologically active, and life would be a massively interesting find for obvious reasons.

      The seasonality rules out explanations like cosmic rays generating methane.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Both are big deals - Mars isn't believed to be geologically active, and life would be a massively interesting find for obvious reasons.
        The seasonality rules out explanations like cosmic rays generating methane.

        That's a fair response. I just thought it was fairly broad since I subconsciously eliminated the cosmic ray option since they did mention seasonality.

        Ignoring the biological aspect for a moment. Geological just seems so damned broad as to incorporate pretty much everything on a planet. If it were a

      • The seasonality doesn't really rule out an external source. On Earth we have seasonal meteorite showers, I guess they could have the same on Mars.
    • by gr8_phk (621180)
      Here is another explanation that isn't really geology or biology: It get trapped into methane hydrates in the winter time.

      I always hate when people say things like "it's not X" without an explicit non-existence proof.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Shadowlore (10860)

      Another source would include the possibility of freeze/thaw cycles. There is also another method suggested last year involving radiolytic H2reacting in a non-bioligic manner with CO2 dissolved in water. That process would be neither biological nor geological. There are other atmospheric/radiological possibilities too (such as UV interacting with the atmosphere).

      Yet another method is one you throw out sarcastically. Last year, as I recall, there was a hypothesis put forth that meteorites released methane as

  • In further news Saturn's climate and chemical activity is also influenced by seasons.

    Using a hydrocarbon as a measuring stick for the presence of life is not a very good indicator. Venus has oceans of the crap sloshing around. doesn't imply life.

    Here is what we do. get a bunch of people with a terminal disease that gives them 20 years or so of life left. Or the entire viewing audience of Jersey Shore. Put them on a 1 way rocket to Mars with a crap load of Cheetoes and snack foods. Throw in Lohan as a playth

    • Throw in Lohan as a plaything, she's too cracked out to even notice these days...

      She'll notice when she runs out of crack

    • Yeah, because there aren't _any_ engineers, scientists, or biologists who would take a one-way-trip to Mars.

    • by MaWeiTao (908546)

      the entire viewing audience of Jersey Shore. Put them on a 1 way rocket to Mars with a crap load of Cheetoes and snack foods. Throw in Lohan as a plaything, she's too cracked out to even notice these days...

      Are these the kinds of people we want to be ambassadors to Earth? Any alien race who came across them would be compelled to destroy the Earth in order to prevent our stupidity from spreading.

    • Using a hydrocarbon as a measuring stick for the presence of life is not a very good indicator. Venus has oceans of the crap sloshing around. doesn't imply life.

      Venus? I think you meant Titan.

    • by mjwx (966435)

      Here is what we do. get a bunch of people with a terminal disease that gives them 20 years or so of life left. Or the entire viewing audience of Jersey Shore. Put them on a 1 way rocket to Mars with a crap load of Cheetoes and snack foods. Throw in Lohan as a plaything, she's too cracked out to even notice these days...

      No, these kind of things never turn out well. in every sci-fi movie always the exiles return for vengeance. Frankly the idea of Empress Lohan I of Mars or Praise be to Snookie day is too sc

  • It could be geology or biology,

    Oh, well, that narrows it down.

    In other news, physicists said that before the Big Bang there was either something or nothing. Oh, wait, bad example. :-) Ah, I tease you, physicists! Give us a smile.

  • No Uranus jokes?? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MooseTick (895855)

    I can't believe an article about space, biology, and methane has no comments about Uranus. Slashdot has let me down again.

  • by PPH (736903) on Monday September 27, 2010 @04:04PM (#33715812)

    Actually, 'biological' should be 'current biological'.

    Grab a sample of Martian methane and check its distribution of carbon isotopes. Carbon sequestered thousands or millions of years ago should have different ratios from atmospheric sources (the principle of carbon dating). Current biological activity should reflect the ratios of the existing carbon sources.

    Of course, if underground life is munching on 'old' carbon, its farts will look old as well. Just as old as CH4 sequestered a long time ago and leaking to the surface only now.

  • It's pining for the canals.
  • I, for one, welcome our bovine Martian overlords.

Theory is gray, but the golden tree of life is green. -- Goethe

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