NASA Probe to Find Out: Does Mars Have Burps of Life, or Burps of Rock?

By Eliza Strickland | March 6, 2009 6:16 pm

Mars beauty shotNASA has proposed sending both an orbiter and a robotic explorer to Mars in the next decade to follow up on the recent report that Mars “hotspots” emit plumes of methane gas, which could be produced by either geothermal reactions or by deeply buried bacteria that breathe out methane as a waste product. That exciting phenomenon, which is still being debated by Mars experts, was observed by researchers using ground-based telescopes to measure seasonal fluctuations of gases on the planet. Researchers say closer observations would have a much better chance of determining whether the methane does signal the ultimate prize: extraterrestrial life.

NASA officials sketched out their proposal at a meeting of Mars scientists, but stressed that plans could change. The current idea is to launch the Mars Science Orbiter in 2016 followed by a exobiology lander or rover mission launched during a particularly juicy launch window in 2018 (the best since the Spirit and Opportunity rovers)…. The plan would also follow a natural progression: MSO would map the methane; the lander or rover would go after it with a suite of astrobiological instruments [Nature blog].

Researchers say an orbiter would certainly be able to confirm or deny the earlier report of methane hotspots by mapping methane emissions, and that the orbiter could also probe the composition of the gas. The case for a biological origin for the gas would be strengthened if there is an overabundance of methane laden with the isotope carbon-12, which life prefers to process over heavier isotopes. If, however, the atmosphere also contains heavier hydrocarbons such as ethane, which life as we know it cannot produce, that would point to a geological source for the methane [New Scientist].

The new plan for an orbiter in 2016 with a rover or lander to follow later came about due to some budget issues. The agency originally aimed to launch a lander or rover in 2016, but the plans will be dropped in order to pay for a two-year delay in the launch of the hulking Mars Science Laboratory rover that will cost NASA an estimated $400 million [New Scientist]. By sending an orbiter in 2016 instead of a rover, NASA will also ensure that a communications orbiter will be in place for future lander missions; the current orbiters, Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, will be getting old.

Related Content:
80beats: “Life on Mars” Theories Get a Boost From Methane Plumes
The Loom: Live Blogging the Mars Methane Mystery: Aliens At Last?


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Chris Niemann

    Considering our weak economy, how can we plan to afford such expeditions? It seems to me that we are kidding ourselves. I’ve always considered myself an optomist, but isn’t it unrealistic to ignore our economic environment? I find myself with many more questions than answers today. Isn’t this a perfect example of “bad astronomy.” It appears to me that we are planning a Mars expedition and not even mentioning the cost, as if this were a minor glitch.

  • Len Rosen

    I don’t think its bad astronomy to continue to explore Mars. This is good science. If you want to find places where you can create a positive impact on society and remove a negative then just take a look at Pentagon programs that are filled with weapons development overkill. The more than half a trillion dollars spent annually on American preparation for war represents more than all other countries military expenditures combined worldwide. There is preparedness and there is what we have today – gross overspending. The money saved from curtailing many of these programs can go into scientific research, education, healthcare and dealing with poverty, starvation and homelessness. The exploration of Mars and our other forays into the cosmos represent the destiny of humankind as a species. The space programs of NASA, the ESA, the Canadian Space Agency, Japan, Russia and China represent a small percentage of the total dollars spent by these same nations on weapon systems which represent the potential destruction of humankind. Hard to balance that equation.

  • Bree

    Ok, I agree with you. I just wanted to share some INFO. I checked on a few NASA websites, or it was published by Teehee but they said it was photos from their web, I could be wrong, but the caught an alien picture, it was a female and it was waving her hand. Then the rover also got pictures of skulls. Spookey, huh?

  • shaking head

    @ Bree-

    your joking right????…. I sure hope so…okay lets just get a few things straight here… lets just pretend for a minute that what you said is true. Why the hell would NASA and every other space agency in the world spend billions of dollars every year to look for alien life if we already knew it existed? Not to mention that if aliens were real I highly doubt that they would look similar enough to us, that you, would be able to distinguish a male from a female. An alien life form would look so drastically different from us because its species would have evolved much differently from us. It could be 50 feet tall with 67 legs no head and some appendages that don’t even exist on life as we know it. Sooo spooky?—- no……………………. stupid yes!

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