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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Mars "burps"

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Tuesday, December 16, 2014/Categories: natural history, space science, environment

Methane "burps" conjures up unpleasant images of belching cattle, melting permafrost, and rotting garbage piles. Methane is a bi-product of biological activity here on Earth. Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena has just  announced  that methane burps have now been detected on Mars. The Curiosity rover, JPL's mobile testing laboratory now climbing a Mars mountain, has sampled burps of methane several times on the planet's surface. The results confirm spectrographic measurements that were made previously from Earth and will be published in Science Magazine.

Methane can be produced via geological or biological processes but on Earth a biological source predominates. The molecule only survives in the atmosphere for a realatively short period, a few hundred years, so it is constantly being replenished from biological decomposition. On Mars, the source is still unknown but a NASA graphic illustrates the two possibilities.

Potential sources of methane on Mars   (credit: NASA)

Methane ( CH4 ) consists as four hydrogen and one carbon atom. Curiosity detected the gas in parts per billion on several occasions. Depending on its source, the carbon atom can be one two isotopes, carbon-12 and carbon-13, and a biological source only uses C-12 to make the molecule. Unfortunately, Curiosity's analysis sensitivity can't distinguish which isotope it has measured on Mars. If larger volumes of the gas can be analyzed by Curiosity, it may be possible to determine if methanogens, methane producing microbes, have been metabolizing the C-12 isotope to produce this Martian molecules.  

If it is from a biological source is proven, it would be one of the biggest discoveries in science.


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