More Martian methane: Michael Mumma movie

By Phil Plait | January 19, 2009 12:00 pm

I read on Toms’ Astronomy Blog that NASA put out a short video with Mars specialist Michael Mumma discussing the methane recently found on Mars:

As I pointed out earlier, it could be biology, or it could be non-living chemistry. We need to equip our landers with sniffers to find out more. This could be a huge discovery, leading to a huger one. Or it could just be a really incredible discovery that will help us better understand our dead neighboring world.

Either way is a win.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (28)

  1. Bill Roberts


    I understand that it isn’t conclusive, but wouldn’t the seasonal nature of these methane releases be more consistent with biology than chemistry? I would think that it is at least another nail in the coffin of the volcanic theory.

  2. I know that biology is not high up your list of favorite topics, but a biological explanation would be a bigger win. Although I doubt a biological cause.

  3. KeepMarsGreen

    Since there is the possiblity this is life, shouldn’t we leave this planet alone, instead of contaminating it with our filth and diseases?

  4. Lots of things change on Mars due to seasonal temperature variations. Chemistry changes as the CO2 freezes and sublimates.

    As far as contaminating Mars, the spacecraft go through a cleaning process to reduce the chance of infection. But your use of the words “filth and disease”, plus your name, strike me that you may have an agenda here. Care to elaborate?

  5. AFakeGuy

    It’s highly unlikely to be biological. It’s just that people want it to be that. CO2 mixing with water underground is the most likely scenario.

  6. @Bill:
    If the source is chemical, changes in temperature with the seasons could easily change the rate of reaction. Temperature could even have an effect on vulcanism as well, as warmer ground may be more porous (or at least lest frozen), allowing more gases to escape. I am not holding my breath, but a biological origin for the methane would be more cool than a geological one.

  7. WJM

    Methane and carbon dioxide?

    There is only one logical conclusion: MARTIAN COW FARTS!

  8. WJM

    Actually, BA, I can understand some of where KeepMarsGreen is coming from. There are large “wilderness” swaths of this world which are torn up with ATV and tracked vehicle tracks. We can’t even keep this planet looking pretty, when damage like that lasts decades on our biologically and geologically active surface. I don’t like the thought of our vehicles going willy-nilly over the pristine lunar surface, or of contaminants possibly damaging Mars or other places.

    Prevention and mitigation are legitimate concerns; we’ve already made a hash of one big ball of rock perched on top of a stack of turtles…

  9. Sili

    Sniffers on Mars?

    I know! Instead of writing a book about kicking puppies, why don’t we send them all to Mars instead?!

  10. Metre

    Honestly, who cares if we mine or track up another world that has, at most, microbes on it. Isn’t that taking environmentalism a wee bit too far?

  11. Adrian H


    Our big ball of rock will be fine – its ability to support us is whats in jeopardy. The earth has shrugged off myriads of species without so much as a blink. It’s not going to miss us or anything. We aren’t capable of destroying earth, let alone mars with the current payload limitations.

  12. Davidlpf

    How about you next book “kicking martian puppies”.

  13. Quatguy

    I mostly agree with Metre. As far as we know, there is nothing on Mars to ruin. I do not believe that a few tonnes of scrap metal and carbon composite (e.g. Viking, Pathfinder, Beagle, Polar Lander etc.) laying on the surface of Mars is going to hurt anything. There is no comparison between the havoc we have imposed on Earth, vs the small amount of ‘litter’ we are leaving on mars. Mars is a big, dry rock with no surface ecosystems. That stated, I definately think we should take every precaution to avoid sub-surface biological contamination (i.e. introducing Earth microbes) but would not worry a nit about space junk or even radioactive materials etc.

  14. I think the methane is due to Arnold Schwarzeneggar setting off an ancient precursor artifact on an underground glacier – he thought it was going to product oxygen though, not methane. Silly precursor aliens.

  15. Ken

    No-one seems top be commenting on the possibility that the isotope ratios (presumably C) will help decide between biological and non-biological sources. I understand that the researchers involved have isotope ratio data which hasn’t yet been analysed. If that is the case then perhaps we will hear something a bit more definitive well before another lander arrives on Mars.

    Has anyone heard anything mo4re about the isotope ratio data?

  16. The ill-fated Beagle 2 probe was carrying a spectrometer that would have sniffed out the methane and pulled it apart into its various constituents. Colin Pillinger believes it would have answered the question as the the methane’s source. Is it too late to add this experiment to Mars Science Laboratory?

  17. PG

    @Ken: You cannot measure the isotope ratio from Earth reliably. The 13-C signature is too weak. You need to go to Mars and collect a sample and do sensitive mass spectrometry. I think MSL will be able to do that.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ PG:

    And then again, perhaps not:

    Although the amount of Martian methane is small (10 parts per billion compared to 1,800 parts per billion on Earth), it appears to be concentrated in regions around the equator. Because these methane “clouds” only last a year before dispersing, the methane sources must be fairly localized and constant. […]

    The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – now scheduled to launch in 2011 – will carry such an optical spectrometer (the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, or TLS). This device may be able to measure the carbon isotope ratio in Martian methane, but Onstott does not think it will be able to say unequivocally whether life or geology is the source.

    For this reason, he and his colleagues are designing a special kind of optical spectrometer, called a cavity ring-down spectrometer (CRDS), that will be 1,000 times more sensitive than TLS. The CRDS works by illuminating an atmospheric sample with a laser whose frequency can be tuned to resonate with methane molecules of a particular isotopic configuration. […]

    Although the CRDS is a mature technology, Onstott and his group need to develop a portable device that can reach a high sensitivity. They have already built a test version that weighs 70 pounds, about a fifth of what a typical mass spectrometer weighs.

  19. @Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Thank You for digging up that information. That’s very information.

  20. UKian

    Remember that Presidential briefing given by NASA back in September?

    I’ve always wondered what the protocol would be if life were discovered by a NASA planetary probe.

    I think the president himself (or her one day) would have to break the news, as it were. I’m sure I’ve read this suggestion before.

    What better place than at the inauguration, when everyone’s watching anyway? Especially if the recent discoveries have shown more than they let on.

    Let’s watch and see!

  21. bjn


    That’s the sound of Martian farts.

    -Edgar Rice Burroughs

  22. SkepTTic

    Can they determine the chirality of the methane?

  23. Edgar

    And this is nothing compared with the things will happen if a martian probe discovers oil deposits…….

  24. Winter Solstice Man

    We need to expand. A few alien microbes won’t stop us. We are the superior life form.

  25. KeepMarsGreen

    Maybe we have designed our spacecraft intelligently by cleaning them but only abstinence will guarantee we do not destroy this planet until we know more about it. We should abort all missionary crusades to this heavenly body. We are destroying one planet lets not destroy others. When Europeans discovered new lands on our own planet like the Americas and Polynesia we brought ecological disaster with vermin and disease. We need to learn from our past. Those new lands were on our own planet just think what we would do to Gaia’s great grandson Mars. OMG choose life!

  26. Ron

    The coincidence with water is too much. I don’t believe that the methane signal being an artifact can be ruled out.


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