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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

"It's Alive!"...maybe

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Wednesday, November 4, 2015/Categories: natural history, space science, sustainability, environment, adventure

NASA is scheduled to make another big announcement about Mars this week. There is a good deal of speculation as to what they might have discovered. Previously, Riled Up made a prediction that the existing water had been observed to still flow on Mars and we were correct. We will make another speculation that NASA has determined that methane, previously measured at low levels on Mars, comes from a biological rather than geological source. Mars may be alive!

                                               Sunrise over Gale Crater, Mars  (credit: JPL)

NASA manages an orbiting spacecraft called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) that has been measuring the composition of the Martian atmosphere since 2014. Their research team is set to announce the first scientific findings from the satellite measurements. The atmosphere of Mars was once much thicker but is very thin today. It also contains trace amounts of methane, a gas that is quickly degraded by ultra-violet light but still exists, that may be part of the MAVEN announcement. The sources of the methane could be important.

Previously, JPL's Curiosity rover measured bursts of methane gas as it was taking samples in Gale Crater. According to the rover's spectrometer analysis,

"during two months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four methane measurements averaged seven parts per billion. Before and after that, readings averaged only one-tenth that level."

Mars Methane spikes, Curiosity spectrometer measurements, 2014  (credit: NASA)

The methane "burps" detected by Curiosity on Mars could come from either a biological or a geologic source but the rover doesn't have the ability to test the carbon in the methane gas, CH4. On Earth this would be relatively straightforward as the isotope of carbon derived from a biological source or a geologic one are different. It is this measurement that could indicate a living methane source if the carbon matched the biological signature.

We will soon learn what new Mars secret has been resolved by the atmospheric measurements made by the MAVEN team and possibly others doing Mars research at NASA. Maybe a biological 'sign of life' has have been discovered on Mars. That would be an announcement for the ages.


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