Methane in Mars

Print edition : July 24, 2015

The presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere has been one of the exciting possibilities that explorations of Mars have tried to verify. An international team of researchers has discovered traces of methane in Martian meteorites, a possible clue in the search for life on the red planet.

The researchers examined samples from six meteorites of volcanic rock that originated on Mars. The meteorites contain gases in the same proportion and with the same isotopic composition as the Martian atmosphere. All six samples also contained methane, which was measured by crushing the rocks and running the emerging gas through a mass spectrometer. The team also examined two non-Martian meteorites, which contained lower amounts of methane.

The discovery hints at the possibility that methane could be used as a food source by rudimentary forms of life beneath the Martian surface. On the earth, microbes do this in a range of environments. The findings are likely to form the basis for astrobiologists in models and experiments aimed at understanding whether life could survive below the surface of Mars today.

The discovery was part of a joint research project led by the University of Aberdeen in collaboration with the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, the University of Glasgow, Brock University in Ontario, and the University of Western Ontario.

“Recent and forthcoming missions by NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] and the European Space Agency (ESA), respectively, are looking at this,” said University of Aberdeen professor John Parnell, who directed the research. “However, it is so far unclear where the methane comes from, and even whether it is really there.”

The team now plans to expand its research by analysing additional meteorites. The team’s approach may prove helpful in future Mars rover experiments, said Sean McMahon of Yale University.

“Even if Martian methane does not directly feed microbes, it may signal the presence of a warm, wet, chemically reactive environment where life could thrive,” McMahon said.

Compiled by R. Ramachandran

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