Mars methane media mess

By Phil Plait | January 19, 2009 6:00 am

By now you’ve probably heard the news about Mars: methane gas is being generated on the Red Planet, and the amount varies with season and location. There are really only two ways to make methane that we know of: geologically (volcanoes, chemical changes under the surface, and so on) and biologically (little critters basically farting belching).

Mars is an interesting place, and anytime we find something new and interesting about it, it’s not surprising to see the media covering it. It’s also not surprising to see the scientists involved excited about it. But when that news deals with biology, well, things tend to get a little out of control.

Or, as in this case, a lot out of control.

Mars under the microscope

First, what do we know?

1) A few years back (in 2004 specifically), methane was detected on Mars. However, those observations were not sensitive enough to do much more than measure the amount (10 parts per billion in the atmosphere, more or less).

2) New maps made of the Martian methane found it changes from place to place, and time to time. Methane is not stable in Mars’ atmosphere: it goes away rapidly. So there must be a source of it that is making methane now, actively.

3) The easiest way to get methane is from volcanoes, but they spew out other gases, and these were not detected.

4) Another, related way is for chemical processes under the surface to create methane. However, we don’t understand what is happening chemically on Mars terribly well, or beneath the surface.

5) Methane is a natural byproduct of life on Earth. Maybe that’s happening on Mars as well.

That’s it. That’s what we know. It might be geological, it might be chemical, it might be biological. We don’t know which.

That didn’t stop some of the media from totally exaggerating the article to the point of irresponsible journalism.

Take the UK newspaper The Sun. The headline they ran? "Nasa reveals life on Mars". Incredible. The lead line was "ALIEN bugs are responsible for strong plumes of methane gas detected on Mars, it was claimed tonight."

That’s simply wrong. Completely and utterly! All the scientists said they didn’t know for sure. Some implied microbes were a good candidate, but none came out and said "It was alien bugs."

Sure, The Sun is a rag, best used to line bird cages (even the online version, if you can scrape enough electrons together), but it’s widely read. And lest you think it was just them, then check out The Mirror, with its headline "Mars: Nasa experts to confirm there is life on Mars", or The Money Times, which had "Methane plumes indicate ‘life on Mars’". Lots of blogs ran with this idea, too.

To be fair, NASA is not blameless in this. Their press release for this was titled "DISCOVERY OF METHANE REVEALS MARS IS NOT A DEAD PLANET". Now, they are playing with the word "dead", since you can interpret that to be about geological activity, as opposed to biological. But still, that’s fanning the flames they must have known would erupt. I would’ve hoped they had learned their lesson from the last time they pulled a PR stunt like this.

The real source of the Martian methane.

OK, so NASA goaded tabloid media into false headlines, and some ran with it (when they didn’t need provocation). What’s the real deal?

I’ll be frank: we don’t know. Methane is a very simple molecule (CH4, just four hydrogen atoms bonded to a carbon atom), and is pretty easy to produce in a number of ways. As noted above, volcanoes are probably ruled out due to the lack of any detection of other gases they usually produce.

Chemistry? Maybe. Mars is different than Earth. The laws of chemistry are the same there as here, but the chemistry going on is different. The air is thin, and mostly CO2. We know the surface chemistry of the planet is pretty different than here; the water that once flowed on its surface was probably acidic and very salty, and when it dried up left weird things like jarosite. Not only that, there appears to be perchlorate in the soil found by Phoenix, and that tends to dissolve terrestrial life. However, it’s possible that CO2 could combine with water under the surface (if there’s a heat source like magma) to make methane.

And what of biology? It can’t be ruled out, but it cannot be ruled in either. The amount of methane detected was pretty substantial, implying a large amount of biological activity, but there has been no evidence of any life on Mars at all up to now. It’s all circumstantial: ice under the surface was found by Phoenix, but near the north pole. Water used to be abundant, but no conclusive proof of extant liquid water on the surface has been found… not even temporarily (like recent flooding events). All the evidence for liquid water (like gullies in craters) could be from other sources, like clathrates.

The bottom line here is that if we want to figure out what’s causing this gassy Martian eructation, we need better instrumentation at the site. I hope that NASA will equip their next landers with something that can taste the air and perhaps nail down the source of the methane.

Finally, a thought: where you get your news is just as if not more important than what that news is. When it comes to science, there are very few newspapers you can trust. When it comes to astronomy and space news, your best bet is to go to the people who know what they’re talking about, and go to multiple sources to cross-check them.

And who would that be? Who got this methane story right?

Universe Today, unsurprisingly, nailed it with "Large Quantities of Methane Being Replenished on Mars". Also unsurprisingly, Emily at The Planetary Society blog has an excellent article as well. My fellow Hive Overmind blogger Carl Zimmer live blogged the press conference and produced an excellent report.

Other bloggers noticed the media nonsense too, including my friends and colleagues Dave Mosher and Carolyn Collins Petersen.

I suppose that after all this, there’s one thing we know for absolute sure: methane, both chemically and journalistically, is a volatile substance.

Microscope picture from euthman’s Flickr stream, the outhouse from bossco, and alien head from soapylove. Both Mars pictures are from NASA.


Comments (126)

  1. Be fair. If the methane comes from contamination brought to Mars by Earth probes then they really are alien bugs.

  2. Ross

    To put the sun in context they had a headline the other week that a ufo had hit a wind turbine.

    Cheers Phil been waiting to read what you had to say about it.

  3. Charles Boyer

    The shame of the misrepresentations is that inevitably the scientists are blamed making misleading statements as opposed to the PR flacks taking poetic license and the reporters sensationalizing a possibility. That’s unfair to the scientific investigators because without a doubt they made no outlandish claim that the methane proves life on Mars. Possible !=certain.

    Personally, I won’t believe that life exists on Mars until it is found and it is proven that it’s source is non-terrestrial.

  4. Charles Boyer

    “it’s source = its source.”‘ Must…make…proper…grammar…second…nature.

  5. Alan

    I was just wondering if some periodic capture/release mechanism could be completely ruled out; unless I misread that’s not apparently viewed as a possibility here.

    Does it get cold enough anywhere on Mars for methane to freeze out? Or is there some mechanism by which it could be adsorbed in something else?

  6. Soren

    I saw the story in the headline of the Danish national radio. (DR)

    At first I was excited. The story said there would be a press conference live on the web from NASA. So I went to NASA’s homepage.

    Hmm no headlines about life on Mars. By the third or fourth search I managed to find the announcement about the PC, which where a lot less sensational than what was reported by DR.

    Hmm what to do next – Look up Phil. But your were silent. I checked scienceblogs (sorry I know they’re the competition – and evil) – no reaction there.

    By experience I know the Danish media is generally lagging scince- and discoverblogs by anything from 2 days to months or years.

    So I decided to not be excited until my favourite bad astronomer saw fit to deal with the stuff.

    I mean, if there was any clear evidence for life on mars the sciency type blogs would be all a twitter.

  7. Most of us who grew up in science, taking science classes (whether in grad or undergrad levels) are used to hearing the term “living planet” used for Earth and/or for any planet that changes over time. It’s a usage that scientists employ a lot — and to be fair, most competent science journalists GET that right away. That leaves only the incompetent, the poorly schooled and otherwise ignorant writers and editors to get it wrong when they hear the term “alive” in reference to a planet that is showing some signs of change — whether life-based or geological. This will probably happen a lot more in what’s left of the mainstream media as they employ j-school students who didn’t take science, or send non-science reporters to cover science events.

    It’s not just endemic to astronomy or physics reporting — I often see stupidness burning in medical reporting, too. It’s no surprise that scientists don’t want to talk to the press — not when their words are taken and twisted by reporters who either don’t know better or should know better but do it anyway for the sake of a screaming headline.

    That may sound like a damning indictment, but I have the experience to back it up — both scientifically and journalistically.

  8. SLC

    Dr. Plaits’ nemesis over at Scienceblogs is a little less negative then he is.

  9. Gareth

    I’m going to report Phil to whatever the US equivalent of the RSPCA is. I can’t believe he’d be so cruel as to even hint at the idea of lining a poor bird’s cage with The Sun “news”paper. That’s just plain evil.

    On the article, though, I have certainly learned over the past few years to not trust any general news site with scientific stories. It’s just not worth it.

  10. strahlungsamt

    The Sun is a Rupert Murdoch rag and don’t even get me started on him.

    Murdoch also owns the Metro, that free rag which is given out on buses and subways in most major cities.

    Remember the UFOs over Wales last year? Phil reported it at the time (don’t have the link) and it included an old picture of a ufo from the fifties. Story goes: police in a helicopter saw some strange lights floating above the trees down below but decided not to investigate. CONSPIRACY! CONSPIRACY!!!

    Next day, a couple of newlyweds revealed they put candles in a plastic bag and set it floating into the sky to celebrate their wedding. A fact ignored by the Metro. Next day, the Metro had another picture of a ufo with the heading “Are We Being Watched?” and page 3 had a full page diagram of different ufo sightings and not a word of the newlyweds.

    That, my friends, is what passes for responsible journalism these days. I wonder if they’ll ask Richard C. Hoagland for his opinion (like he needs to be asked) on this one.

  11. The Sun may be only a rag, but here in South Africa, one of our most respected publications ran with the exact same headline!

    I blogged about it on Friday here:

  12. Cheyenne

    Wow- So according to the latest results the news rags could still yell “Subterranean Martian Cows could be the Source of Martian Methane!”.

    Yummmmmy, Martian burgers….oh nom nom nom nom nom….

  13. If this does turn out to be biological in origin, I think it will show just how difficult the search for life is. After all, we have sent numerous probes that have detected nothing. Maybe the lesson for us is not to be limited by our pre-conceived ideas of what life will be like.

    On a side note, I have read some concerns about possible contamination from the upcoming Russian/European Phobos-GRUNT Mission, but have not been ble to find out the reasons for those concerns. Do you have any info on that, Phil?

  14. Jonathan

    Only by the loosest of definitions can the Uk Sun be described as a newspaper. It was even front page news on their print edition.

  15. Cheyenne

    I’m making no excuses for Yellow journalism, or just junk journalism, but I think the buying public needs to be held accountable as well. Free countries – The Sun or The Mirror and everybody else is printing what sells (and no, I’m not saying it’s responsible – but it’s the market conditions they are in). I’m just saying that accountability should be on both sides of the street here.

  16. cletus

    What’s with the image of the alien on the outhouse door? Shoulda been a pair of moons….

  17. Myself

    I really disagree with this article. It was Nasa themself who claimed that it was much more likely due to organism than a geological process. They found no other chemicals in the atmosphere that would result from volcanic activity or any other known geological process. Mars is thought to be more or less dead geologically, so it currently looks like it is most likely caused by life. It just hasnt been verified/proven so of course they cannot claim they found life. I hope we will get our answer with the mars science lab.

  18. Darrin

    Now this is just ridiculous. I saw all the bru-ha-ha on the various news channels a few days ago (CNN, Fox News, what have you), and they all had the same sensationalist nonsense: Life on Mars, Aliens are Real, etc.

    Ugh. Modern journalism.

    Responsibility is dead. Long live responsibility.

  19. Stu

    Alright, for the last time, cos I’m getting sick of banging my head against this brick wall, will all of you Across The Pond stop being surprised/frustrated/aghast/smug when The Sun or another British publication likes it covers a science story inaccurately? No-one here relies on The Sun for science news, ok? It’s an entartainment paper, for celeb news, sports stories, and titilation, it’s not Nature or Sky and Telescope. We have serious newspapers for serious news, and this story was accurately covered in those papers. Being surprised at The Sun for badly reporting a science story is like being surprised a US supermarket rag prints a pic of Lindsay Lohan’s knickers peeking out as she gets into a taxi, or Britney Spears shaving her hair off. It treats stories sensationally, to be sure, but those of us who have a passion for astronomy can read coverage like this and either a) pound a wall in despair and rant about “poor journalism” or b) use it to tell people the actual facts of the story, and educate them properly. This paper was lying around at work, and some colleagues there, seeing the cover and knowing of my interest, asked me what was actually going on and I was able to tell them. Result! :-)

    Not making excuses for the Sun’s bad – actually I think it was more like over-enthusiastic – coverage, just looking for some perspective here, ok?

  20. Grizzly

    More like burps than farts there Phil. Our terrestrial methane dispensers par excellence – cows – are mistakenly thought to produce it from the back end when in fact it is the front end where the bulk of the methane comes from.

  21. I promise to stop shooting methane-filled cows at Mars. In my defense, it gets kinda boring during the winter in Iowa.

  22. Yoeman

    Drudge had this front and center for a couple of days, I saw the Sun and started laughing.
    I figured you would tackle this nonsense in due time, since, if true, this would be one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind.

  23. Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:
    I promise to stop shooting methane-filled cows at Mars. In my defense, it gets kinda boring during the winter in Iowa.

    Thus giving a whole new outlook for ‘cow tipping’



  24. kuhnigget

    Slightly off topic, but not, this month’s Wired magazine (it was a freebie subscription, okay?) included a technology timeline that included a “hip” (in Wired?! gosh!) nod to the moon hoaxers.

    An otherwise accurate milestone included the label “man (allegedly) walks on the moon.”

    I’m sure they thought they were being ironic and cool. But then this is the same magazine that periodically predicts the “end of ______ as we know it” every time some routine science or technology makes the scene.

  25. ABR.

    Well there’s your problem! Silly astronomers — you need a stereo (dissecting) microscope to view a three dimensional object like Mars. If you’re going to use a compound microscope to view an item, it should be under the coverslip. With such a large three dimensional structure like that, you might want to consider getting a nice sharp microtome to do some cross sections before preparing your slides. Or you need a really deep cavity well slide.

  26. I had to do a double-take at the outhouse. I thought it was the TARDIS! :)

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    “Journalists makes a stink, methane products goes through the roof.”

    [But FWIW, I agree with Cheyenne, the distribution quality vs volume is a function of a larger market situation here. Perhaps we could call it The Tragedy of the Common Sense, or “Editor-in-chief Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Press.”]

    As regards MSL, I believe I saw an opportune press release explaining that the current optical spectrometer wasn’t able to make an isotope analysis on the detected concentrations (to distinguish potential biology sources from most geological sources), but that a group was working on a high sensitivity/low mass instrument that could do it soon. Based on a tunable optical ring cavity instead of a clunky mass spectrometer, IIRC.

    Since the MSL delay will cost an hefty amount anyway, I assume an instrument retrofit will be barely noticeable.

    I was just wondering if some periodic capture/release mechanism could be completely ruled out;

    That is another uncertainty AFAIU; we don’t know when the methane was produced either, do we?

    IIRC, some speculations on the periodicity was that it could be explained by (short-term) release from ice-blocked fissures over the seasons, i.e. there could be an amount of ice between a source and detected emissions. But I assume today’s source could fully be methane captured in ice, as well.

  28. Your own report might be fairer if it pointed out that The Sun article was published before the NASA press release came out. You fail to point out that he very first paragraph, on the front page, said: “NASA experts will today reveal compelling new evidence that there really IS life on Mars.” – compelling new evidence, not definite fact.
    Inside, the fifth paragraph explained that volcanic activity was also a source of methane before directly quoting leading Mars scientist Professor Pillinger: “Methane is a product of biology. For methane to be in Mars’ atmosphere, there has to be a replenishable source. The most obvious source of methane is organisms. So if you find methane in an atmosphere, you can suspect there is life. It’s not proof, but it makes it worth a much closer look.”
    If NASA call a special press conference to consider the possibility that there is life on Mars, that is surely a news story in my book.

  29. Reid Alsworth

    Would it be possible to put a microscope on the next probe to look for possible microbes? Would they have any chance of finding the germs if they are there?

  30. TN

    Phil, would you please address this bull:

    I am too tired myself, and someone should.

  31. Steve A

    @Michael L

    To answer your question, the probe is carrying an experiment by the Planetary Society to test the hardiness of some organisms in what I believe is to check out the validity of the transpermia theory. Because this is a sample return mission to Phobos, there is the chance of contamination if the craft crashes. While the boards involved think the risk is very low, they are uncomfortable because its a Russian craft (this is the first probe in a long while) and its unclear how well they will follow international guidelines.

    As for the reporting of the methane, in geology, you do say a planet is “dead” when there is no geological activity. I heard that all the time in geology and planetary science classes and talks. That’s standard nomenclature. By using that term, they correctly cover both biological and geological sources of the methane by saying it indicates that Mars isn’t “dead.”. I don’t think that qualifies as a PR stunt. And I have to wonder why it’s okay to use similar terms for stars in reporting, but not for planets.

    And there are good newspaper science reporters out there. I like Kenneth Chang at the New York Times, Seth Borenstein for the AP, and Dan Perlman for the San Francisco Chronicle. Being careful and reading a variety of sources is important, though. And starting with the UK press, which often like to interject editorial voices in their news, is not a good idea unless you are used to it. I know I had trouble with it at first.

  32. Good summary, Phil, though I’m SHOCKED, SHOCKED that the media messed it up…

  33. I found another old article from way back in 2004 (did they have the internets back then?) that speculated that the methane could be from volcanic activity.

    Finding live volcanic activity would be amazing in itself.

  34. Steve A

    Oh, I do like the Guardian, the Times of London, and the Telegraph to be fair to the UK press. It’s not all like the Sun.

  35. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    On a side note, I have read some concerns about possible contamination from the upcoming Russian/European Phobos-GRUNT Mission, but have not been ble to find out the reasons for those concerns. Do you have any info on that, Phil?

    I’m not Phil, but I hear the Grunt mission will on behalf of the Planetary Society take a small container with sample organisms on a round trip to Phobos and back via the Phobos sample return experiment, to study survivability and planet-to-planet transfer possibilities of life in an experiment called LIFE (Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment).

    The Planetary Society design requirements are:

    What are other current design constraints?

    The Bio-module will provide 30 small tubes (3 milimeter in diameter) for individual microbe samples. It will also accommodate a native sample of bacteria — derived from a permafrost region on Earth — within a cavity 26mm in diameter. The Bio-module must be sealed to meet planetary protection requirements and experimental validation. The module must also be able to withstand a single 4000g impact (as in landing on Earth) without the seals failing or the outer case fracturing. There must be a simple means of recording radiation doses and temperature extremes during its flight and return to Earth.

    I dunno about any concerns – if the container is designed against current planetary protection requirements (whatever those are), and in any case can survive Earth impact intact, it will likely survive a failure mode resulting in Mars entrance without organism dispersal?

    (4000 g, isn’t that the kind of impact stress a fetus can take in utero? Impressive in any case. [Pun intended.])

  36. Lindsay

    The Sun also broke NASA’s embargo on this story. Even if they’re fixed on being hysterically inaccurate, they could at least pay attention to an embargo?

    Personally, I’m kinda sick of the search for life on Mars.

  37. Incidentally, the reason I didn’t cover this story immediately is that I was working on JREF matters with our new Director of Operations who had flown in to meet with me for a few days. We were working almost non-stop, and I simply didn’t have time to write up the news.

  38. Gary Ansorge

    the melting point of methane is: 91 K,-182.5 °C, -297 °F.(from Wikipedia)

    As far as I know, it doesn’t get that cold anywhere on MArs:
    min mean max (Wikipedia)
    186 K 227 K 268 K[3]
    −87 °C −46 °C −5 °C

    Stu: Don’t get your knickers all in a twist. We’re only surprised/aghast because Y’All “over there” aren’t as bonkers as on our side of the pond,,,it’s just bonker envy, doncha know?

    My money is on subterranean chemical processes but I sure hope it’s biological,,,maybe the Martian civilization is underground,,,(Shades of Barsoom),,,and well endowed MArtian chicks,,,(meaning small/young avians) are expectorating methane.

    Ah well, time (and a blabber mouth robot) may tell,,,,

    GAry 7

  39. @ Lindsay
    The Sun did not break any embargoes. I do not break embargoes. That is a potentially damaging remark to make to a journalist. Science Express and NASA accepted that the story did not break any embargo because I had no knowledge of or access to the science paper. They called it a speculative narrative which is why they refused to lift the embargo that other media outlets were under.

  40. With mass media coverage like this, it’s no wonder that the anti-science crowd (creationists and the like) keep claiming that scientists can’t make up their mind. It’s not that science is changing every minute, but that the media’s coverage of science changes wildly.

    Scientists say that methane on Mars could be chemical, geological or biological and the media is suddenly reporting that scientists have found life on Mars. Then, when the scientists discover the true source (say, some chemical process), the papers all report on how the scientists were wrong to report finding life on Mars. Nevermind that the scientists never said there *was* life on Mars. At this point, the creationists/etc jump in holding this up as a sign that scientists change their views willy-nilly and can’t be trusted to come up with the truth.

    If only the mass media could get some decent science reporting out there. But I guess “Life Found On Mars” sells more papers than “Methane On Mars Might Come From Biological Processes But Might Also Come From Chemical Or Geological Processes.”

  41. Cheyenne

    (well, SOMETHING up there has wind)”

    – Sun front page

    The author didn’t break any embargoes. He’s just using speculation and questionable, sensational reporting to sell copy. That’s kind of his job for a paper like the Sun (and judging by the copy sold and the additional media drummed up, it worked!).

    Paul – Please feel free to contact me about my Yeti photos. They’re kind of grainy, but you can definitely headline –

    (Hey, try to prove us wrong)

  42. Nemo



    Four years? No.

    Four minutes.

  43. Gary Ansorge

    How about “Yeti on Mars. Pictures of Yeti on Mons Olympus”?
    That could explain all that methane,,,LOL,,,

    GAry 7

  44. I’m sure BA hates it when people go off topic, sorry, but click my name if you want something interesting regarding Obama’s inauguration and NASA.

    “NASA’s moon buggy will participate in President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural parade with the crew of the latest shuttle mission and this small rover, that is the current design for a mission to the moon in about 12 years. It will be driven by astronaut Michael Gernhardt.”

  45. murph

    “Must…make…proper…grammar…second…nature” – Please go to a Grammar blog and show off there. Who cares. This is about science.

  46. Todd W.


    Now that’s quite a message to send to the nation.

  47. Andrew

    Thanks for this, Phil, I’ve been having to tell people off for days! Now I can just point them here.

  48. scottb

    The Sun did not break any embargoes. I do not break embargoes. That is a potentially damaging remark to make to a journalist.

    Is someone accusing the Sun of journalism?

    Nah, couldn’t be…

  49. Bill Nettles

    Thanks for the post, Phil. I had already told my Earth & Space class basically the same. And it’s going to get worse because today’s “journalism” majors are focusing on method and not knowledge. The majority avoid math and science classes, as well as grammar.

    I keep getting reminded of things like this whenever someone sees my stack of lab reports (about telescopes or moon phases) to be graded and say, “Oh, do you teach astrology?” ARGH!

  50. Todd W.

    @Bill Nettles

    See, I think that we should really be calling “astronomy” (law of the stars) “astrology” (study of the stars), and that “astrology” should be called “guessing”.

  51. craig england

    Surely any journalism to get the public interest in space and the universe fired back up can only be a good thing,with regards to future government funding etc?!

  52. Todd W.

    @craig england

    A utilitarian approach is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it gets the public excited, on the other, it plays havoc with their critical thinking.

  53. If you want hysterical reporting, you don’t have to look much further than this blog entry:
    “Sure, The Sun is a rag, best used to line bird cages (even the online version, if you can scrape enough electrons together), but it’s widely read.” – Phil Plait.
    Popular papers exist. Are you really saying that freelance journalists should not try to get some science in there amongst the UFO and Big Brother stuff?

  54. Gazz

    I supressed my natural disgust at this noxious rag and subscribed just so I could send a comment that they are deliberately misrepresenting this story. Apparently they are ‘reviewing’ my comment, which implies if they see it shows their reporters as liars it won’t be printed.

  55. Shouldn’t that be measured in “farts per billion”? :)

  56. scottb

    Are you really saying that freelance journalists should not try to get some science in there amongst the UFO and Big Brother stuff?

    What part of “Nasa reveals life on Mars” don’t you understand? It’s hard enough to get science in the MSM (which is what I think you’re supporting) but are you suggesting that bad science is OK just because it’s science?

  57. Elmar_M

    My take on the mainstream media is best described by this:

    On the rest of the subject. How does Co2 react when the atmosphere is bombarded by protons from the solar wind? I am not sure, but I could imagine that small amounts of Methane could be formed by that (among other things). But then I might be wrong about that (someone with a physics or chemistry degree might be better suited for giving a comment on that). I am just thinking that this might explain seasonal differences as well… Maybe not though… Just thinking out loud…

  58. From the linked article:

    “Methane has been measured in large quantities in Mars atmosphere”

    That’s a bit misleading. It’s my understanding that the overall amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere is about 10 parts per billion by volume. Since methane has a molecular weight of 16 grams per mole and the average molecular weight of the Martian atmosphere is a little less then 44 grams per mole, then the proportion of methane by weight is about 3.6 parts per billion.

    The total mass of the Martian atmosphere is about 25 trillion metric tons so that means the total mass of methane is about 90,000 metric tons.

    @Article “”We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane,” said Villanueva.”

    19,000 metric tons in one plume is about 20 percent the total amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

    @Article “The rate of release is about 1 pound per second or .6 kg per second.”

    So to generate 19,000 metric tons requires about one year of emissions. To generate all 90,000 metric tons of methane in the Martian atmosphere requires about 5 years. I wonder how they computed the rate of release of methane.

    Since this methane is pretty much a trace gas, I wonder how it is compatible with a biological Mars. For example, a variety of farm animals on Earth produce more than 100 million tons of methane per year which is more than 5,000 times higher than the Martian production of methane. This might give some idea of the ratio in masses between a potential Mars biosphere and Earth’s biosphere.

  59. Sili

    My bet is on it being some kind of surface photochemistry since there’s no atmosphere to block out all the UV. It pops up in Summer when there’s the most light, and the whole thing is covered in nasty dust that might act as a catalyst.

    Now if the reaction turns out to indeed be a reduction of CO2, we really really need to find out what’s going on. It’s a long shot, but anything to help with carbon sequestration here on Earth should be looked into. Too bad that methane is a worse GHG than CO2, though.

  60. Chris

    Phil, thanks for commenting on this subject.

    Regarding the Sun, it may be a “popular paper,” but it is also a hysterical rag. Many years ago, while attending a journalism course in London, one of the guest tutors wrote for the Sun. The hypothetical story the class was working on involved, of all things, the Ebola virus, and a sequence of events that were to be translated into “Sun speak.” The entire class was aghast at the way they were encouraged to spin the facts for maximum hysteria. It was essentially a case of, “Don’t write it like that, write it like this, because this way it sounds scarier, and don’t worry too much about getting it right.”

    At the time it was hard to believe just how openly this guy promoted the reporting of things that were blatantly untrue. It was pretty disgraceful, and I’m pleased to say everyone made their feelings perfectly clear. Unfortunately, a lot of people read this stuff and believe it.

  61. Cheyenne

    @Paul –

    How do you get to “Are you really saying that freelance journalists should not try to get some science in there amongst the UFO and Big Brother stuff?”.

    As a journalist that writes for a newspaper like The Sun I understand how you could make stretches in logic but this one is a little too contorted for even someone like me. Clearly, he’s just stating what The Sun is. It’s a paper that basically follows Pam Anderson/Paris Hilton, Football news, and gossip topics. It’s not Le Monde or The Economist and everybody knows it.

    I don’t think you technically did anything wrong (break an embargo or whatever). You’re trying to sell copy and, more importantly, gets some pats on the back for supposedly breaking a huge story – you accomplished your goals. Good on ya.

    I guess my beef would be why The Sun has to suck so bad at reporting on science topics in this way. Why it has to resort to such idiotic sensationalism (and of course, half of that responsibility goes to the brainiacs that buy the ra…paper).

  62. keaton

    Yeah R:E the English press coverage – it was absolutely ridiculous what The Sun printed!! They literally announced it as “Official – there is life on Mars confirm Nasa”!! Just unbelievable. They claimed it as their exclusive scoop – like as if EVERY paper in the world wouldn’t have ran with it on their front page if it was the case.

    Just another example of our totally stupid, irresponsible, lazy and rubbish gutter press over here!

  63. Ben

    But is it really that bad for science?

    If one of the goals of the scientific community is to secure more funding, I would say no. If the tabloid media is whipping the public into a frenzy, could that mean a better chance of NASA getting a larger slice of the pie? I sometimes wonder if these sensationalised press releases are not done to serve a larger purpose.

    If you want to send another probe to Mars, you don’t tell a politican there may not be life; You tell them there is a good chance. The glass needs to be half-full.

  64. TheTranceMan

    Please correct me if I am wrong. I believe that there is a third possibility you may have overlooked; frozen methane trapped beneath the surface slowly sublimating into the atmosphere.
    Created and replenished by biologic processes, beneath the Earth’s oceans lies an extraordinary amount of methane that remains frozen due to the pressures exerted upon it. It seems likely to me that IF life were abundant on Mars before it became too cold to support oceans or surface dwelling organisms, the methane would still be there, trapped under frozen oceans. This could mean that life is responsible for the methane, although Mars itself may indeed be lifeless today.

  65. quasidog

    The simple fact that much of the media gets stuff wrong, or exaggerates issues, is really highlighted with this story, and many people knowing the real facts about the mars/methane issue, also those ones being scientists or having knowledge of how science works, can see this problem clearly. Those ignorant of science just listen to the shock tactics.

    The main point I take from this is when we hear of other stories, maybe not related to science, like political, religious or war situations, or any other subject, whereby some of us may not be ‘experts’ or have very little knowledge of the mechanics of the subject involved, we should also be wary of what most of the media says about those things too.

    It is only when one sees the media completely distort the truth in order to gain attention on a given subject that one personally cares or takes an interest in, that it becomes clear that you can rarely, if ever, trust what they are reporting. Some do it right, but those that do are becoming rare.

    I basically don’t trust much of what I hear or read about reported by most media sources these days because of it. I really have to pick and choose where I get my news from, and even then, I am skeptical about most of it…. especially war and religious related news stories. Distorting the truth and focusing on shock value makes sales.

    Money is driving most of it now. It is really sad.

  66. I did not write The Sun’s headlines. And I note Phil’s complaints about them.
    But I look at the heading/subheading, “Life on Mars: Well SOMETHING up there has wind”, and then I spot the heading/titles on this book: “Death from the skies! These are the ways the world will end…” (“will”, you note, not may). I’m sure it is a brilliant book, but the double standards leave me confused.

  67. Ben

    Surely the difference is intent? Phil is obviously tongue-in-cheek with no intention scaring the crap out of people. The tabloids are, on the other hand, out to get the unwashed masses to buy their publication using whatever sensationalism they can muster.

  68. scottb


    Thank you for finally acknowledging that the headline was ridiculous.

    Regarding Phil’s book, why don’t you explain to us what is factually wrong with the title?

  69. spacecoyote

    It’s cows. Cows, I tells ya. Subterranean Martian Cows.
    (which, to paraphrase Dave Barry, would be a great name
    for a rock band)

  70. MadScientist

    I’ll have to call you on the ‘little critters farting’; bacteria simply do not have the organs required to fart (unless of course you created a bacterium in your own ‘image and likeness’ [biblical tautology]).

    Don’t the gas giants have a lot of methane in them? What’s the origin of that methane? Could the Martian Methane be ancient trapped methane? It must be obvious by now that I don’t know anything about planetary creation; that’s fine I guess since I don’t really have any plans to make any planets of my own.

  71. @ ccpetersen! You hit the nail right on the head. Well said!

  72. # Michael L Says:
    I had to do a double-take at the outhouse. I thought it was the TARDIS! :)

    Well, if you replace the A with a U…..


  73. quasidog

    @scottb Says: ‘Regarding Phil’s book, why don’t you explain to us what is factually wrong with the title?’

    I know you are having a go at Paul, I am yet to read it, and I am sure its a great read, but I was a bit confused with the bottom bit…. “These are the ways the world will end…” …. would’t the world end .. with maybe just one of the suggestions? I mean …. after its ended … its ended right ? After the Sun kills us all and turns the Earth into a hot rock from hell, supernova may very well just be .. useless .. right ? Or maybe we will become so intelligent we learn how to avoid all this !!

    Maybe! … “DEATH FROM THE SKIES!! …. These are some of the possible ways the world might end.. unless of course humans advance to such a point that we can control the motion of the Earth and move it into a safe zone away from all suggested endings, or build a massive energy deflection shield… and even still only one of the endings will be needed to actually end the world anyway, because all of the other possible endings that may happen after the ending that actually kills us all and ends the world, finally happens … making the rest redundant … ”

    WHAT? it fits right? :) jks

  74. IVAN3MAN

    Phil Plait, I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this already, but you have messed up the URL link to The Mirror newspaper — there is a rogue “_&_quot_;_” in front of the “_http_:_“.

  75. Stu

    I’m going to stick up for Paul here, cos I think some of the criticism is getting a bit out of hand. Although he was maybe a bit quick off the mark with the methane story, and kinda added 2 and 2 to get 5, he has covered other space-related stories in The Sun very accurately and has brought science news to many people who wouldn’t normally have a thing to do with it. And by the way, not all Sun readers are rotweiller-walking, Argos chain wearing, socks-tucked-into-white trainers chavs who only buy it for the pictures of their fave football players and “Debbie, 21, from Hull”. That’s a very big brush some people here are tarring its readership with. Lessons for all here, I think. As President Bartlett would say, “What’s next?”

  76. Maybe I don’t know chemistry, but I know funny — a Martian port-a-potty is a frickin’ laugh riot.

  77. Rajjan

    “When it comes to astronomy and space news, your best bet is to go to the people who know what they’re talking about, and go to multiple sources to cross-check them.”

    Well, I would say that goes for ALL news-reading, regardless of topic.

  78. It’s cows. Cows, I tells ya. Subterranean Martian Cows.
    (which, to paraphrase Dave Barry, would be a great name
    for a rock band).

  79. Andrew

    Its incorrect to say perchlorates dissolve living organisms. On earth microorganisms have been found in desert environments that happily coexist with perchlorates.

  80. To Paul Sutherland:
    Firstly, I suspect that the subtitle of Phil’s book is due to the publisher; “These are the ways the world will end” is more concise and “catchy” than “These are some of the ways the world may possibly end”!
    Secondly, the use of “will”, rather than “may” is not altogether inaccurate – since it’s 100% certain that the world WILL end in one or other of the ways Phil describes! After all, one of the scenarios described is the destruction of the Earth – or at least its complete sterilisation – when the Sun becomes a red giant. We don’t need to worry much about this, as it won’t happen until 5 billion years from now – but that it WILL happen is 100% certain, whether or not life on the planet has already been destroyed by one of the other scenarios.

  81. Craig Matthews

    It sure doesn’t help that nearly every media outlet associated with giving out science related news and information has, for the past decade, claimed, on behalf of the scientific community, that methane is 100% indicative of life.

  82. Andy

    Anyone with half of a brain knows there is life everywhere in the Universe, not just on our tiny, insignificant speck of a planet located at the end of a spiral arm of one of billions of insignificant galaxies in ou Universe where nobody could find us even if they tried to. I believe NASA, as big a bunch of starched out buffoons as they all are, has found life at Saturn, Jupiter, and now, Mars and are purposely keeping it quiet for fear of socal upheavel. Religious fanatics would revolt and ruin everyones cushy little belief that we are “Gods creation and children”. Fact of the matter is, if you step outside of the delusion, we are nothing to anyone or any superbeing that purposely keeps its existence a secret. We are as I said, a small insignificant speck amidst billions of stars and hundreds of billions of planets througout this galaxy alone. It is time to get on with it and start to accept the fact that humans are not special and not alone in the Universe, not by a long shot. Hey NASA (PR) idiots, release the damned information to the taxpayers who fund your scuientific research. You (PR) clowns have no right to keep anything from us.

  83. Maybe the methane is from ancient septic tanks from when Mars had flurishing cities?

  84. beagledad

    What spacecoyote and Steave said: Definitely cows.

    What they missed is that the cows are housed inside the giant face, which actually is the roof of a large vertically-integrated beef production and fast food operation. This will be good news for the first astronauts on Mars because there will be a readily available supply of hamburgers. The face isn’t a monument–it’s an extraterrestrial fast food trademark.

  85. Jim: “Stole”? I searched specifically for Creative Commons licensed images that only requested attribution. I attributed it at the bottom of my post. So how precisely did I steal it?

  86. VancouverDave

    Only way to tell for sure is to get up there and check it out. What’s the delay?

  87. Craig

    The term “alien microbe” bothers the methane out of me. So we have found microbes and determined that they are not of Martian origin? Even smart science writers add to the confusion when they write like that.

  88. Greg in Austin

    I think the methane came from the Great Stone Ass of Mars. Its way over on the other side of the planet from the Great Stone Face.


  89. Florian

    The outhouse image is a CC share-alike license. “terms” at the bottom of your blog page says “All materials contained in are the copyrighted property of Discover Magazine” etc. That’s not share-alike and you shouldn’t use CC share-alike material without permission.

  90. Florian, except that the image is not hosted by Discover, it’s on my Flickr account, and is Creative Commons licensed there as well. People are welcome to use it as they see fit.

  91. Florian

    Hm… Seems a bit of a sneaky loophole for using CC share-alike images on a commercial copyrighted site.

  92. Florian, what’s your beef? How is that in any way sneaky? It’s being hosted on the same site the original was. I link back to the image and attribute it to the original guy. Sounds like you’re looking for something to be upset about, but there’s nothing there. That’s what CC licensing is all about.

  93. IVAN3MAN

    RE: Jim & Florian.

    Fair use is a doctrine in United States copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders, such as use for scholarship or review. It provides for the legal, non-licensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author’s work under a four-factor balancing test:

    1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

    2. The nature of the copyrighted work;

    3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;

    4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

  94. As one of the journalism bloggers who reacted to these stories, and as an enormous admirer of Bad Astronomy and Phil Plait, I’d say that to hold up the Sun and a few other tabloids as typical of media science coverage is itself a bit off kilter. The post I did on this eruption in the press listed, by headline, two dozen stories on it. That’s as many as I’ve ever seen done lately on any given piece of news. It’s an extreme bit of herd journalism, and some of the stories were in fact rather dumb. I skipped the Sun’s hed, probably should have used it. Either way, it is in no way typical. Most accounts were reasonably shaded. It’d be hard for a good science reporter NOT to have written on this simply because it’s new and different. Most did okay.
    Check it out at .

  95. Speaking of methane, your post “Explore cosmic limits with me!” got me exploring Mike Brown’s blog where I came across this little nugget: “Its surface is covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice” (…speaking of the KBO Makemake.

  96. Florian

    Phil, apologies. I never mind my images being used on personal blogs or websites. But for commercial use, such as, i think one should ask permission first. That’s all. Sorry if i came across as argumentative. I have no beef. 😉

  97. Yeah R:E the English press coverage – it was absolutely ridiculous what The Sun printed!! They literally announced it as “Official – there is life on Mars confirm Nasa”!! Just unbelievable. They claimed it as their exclusive scoop – like as if EVERY paper in the world wouldn’t have ran with it on their front page if it was the case.

    Just another example of our totally stupid, irresponsible, lazy and rubbish gutter press over here!.

  98. just read an average article

    Gee phil, didn’t know you were a geologist. While we are at it, the science on here is very one-sided, leaving out incredibly relevant scientific information.

    Extremely poor article, designed to get the screaming masses, well, screaming.

    You need to be HONEST about the incredible lack of geological activity on mars (where’s all that MAGMA, phil?), the FACT that the majority of atmospheric methane on the Earth is from biological processes, and exactly what the atomic make-up of the carbon being discussed is and how that is relevant.

    One last point about the MAGMA phil, you pulled that right out of a personal dark hole, with zero science behind it, if even that.

    At least the Sun article had that.

  99. “just an average article”: Gee, most of the CO2 in Earth’s air is from biology, so are you saying Mars’ atmosphere is too? C’mon. I’m not saying there is magma, I’m saying that’s one way to get methane. I got that info off a NASA site, in fact. There are other ways to make methane as well, and the scientists in the PR gave them (and I link to other articles with more info).

    Sounds like another commenter with an ax to grind. Next time, you should try comparing me to Hitler. That’ll earn you more troll points.

  100. just read an average article

    Phil, your article was attack/propaganda piece, and you ain’t no Einstein (or Hitler).

    The science you used to support your ideas was conjecture passed off as information, all in an effort to rub dirt in the eyes people who disagree with your opinion (Sadly enough, preemptively).

    You need to check the tone of your article (and note). You are rude, arrogant, and mean spirited, even while using ridiculously BAD SCIENCE.

    Oh, and Phil, over 90% of the atmospheric methane on Earth is biological in origin. I’m also pretty sure we have a few more tectonic events here.

    Please bridge the gap with data instead of the bull you accuse everyone else of slingin’.

    peace – phil is average

    P.S. NASA has always been honest, huh Phil? Great huge pockets of magma everywhere on Mars, and right near the surface too. I’m still waiting on the dozens of STS videos they refuse to comment on. You should implicitly trust an organization structured by Nazis. Too bad The Von Braunanauts didn’t land ON THE GREEN PART OF MARS.

    Go back to your “Bad Geology.”

  101. Methane possibly from biology on Mars? How stupid are these people? Maybe if a few trillion cows are living under the surface.

  102. Objectivist-Man

    Just a thought, but is there ANY chance that all the rovers we’ve sent up there could have carried some microbes with them, which then multiplied significantly and are releasing the now detected methane? I know NASA has sterilization processes, but there sill may be a chance.

  103. Jonny

    You guys just earned yourselves another subscription.

  104. Jeremy

    I love wet blankets on new and potentially exciting discoveries. However, I prefer it to come from scientists who come up with convincing alternate explanations. You pretty much rule out the geologic explanation bc Mars has been geologically dead for 3 billion years. I was about to buy the chemical explanation until your parenthetical aside “(if there’s a heat source like magma)”…um…see previous sentence. I crave the simplest and clearest explanation, not the most exciting. I’ll keep hunting for an explanation that refutes that the source is biological and I’m sure I’ll find it. That’s what I was looking for when I read this. I wish you had presented something more convincing to give your wet blanket some weight.

    All that said, the source might be life. The source might fricking be life. When can such a thing be said in a remotely scientifically responsible way? Seriously. Not even to mention that if there is some other unknown process going on – that alone is totally exciting and would indeed suggest that Mars is not “dead” (in the metaphorical sense). Of course we don’t know and the odds are great that it isn’t life, but I think those of us watching the astronomy game from the stands should feel comfortable getting a little excited about the possibility.

  105. Big Daddy

    It would be nice to know the source of the methane but, more importantly. Is the methane on Mars in sufficent quanties to be harnessed by man ? For use as a fuel for power generation and or, rocket fuel for travel back to earth and for travel to the outer planets.

    It’s far more efficent, and produces far….far more reliable power. To use methane as a fuel source for power gen over the other options, solar fuel cells and wind gen. To be sure, there should be a primary and at the very least a secondary sources for power gen on Mars.

    But if there’s methane on Mars in large quanities, it’ll sure make the whole job easier.

  106. hendrix

    This production of methane is consistent with the Life Experiment way back in 1976.
    I found an article by a scientist called Huguenin (if I remember well), calling for photochemical reactions.
    And I think mecanisms like circling reactions: Zhabotinsky and other reactions studied by dissipative structures theory are likely to be involved in what’s happening on Mars.


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