Live Blogging The Mars Methane Mystery: Aliens At Last?

By Carl Zimmer | January 15, 2009 3:00 pm

Frankly, if I were Michael Mumma, I’d be going nuts right now. The NASA scientist and his colleagues have either found evidence of life on Mars, or are getting fooled by some weird geochemistry.

The researchers today today are reporting that in 2003 and 2006, they recorded plumes of methane rising from the surface of the Red Planet. Working back from their measurements of methane in the air, the researchers pinpointed some particular spots on Mars where the methane came from. And it’s a lot of methane they’re talking about–19,000 metric tons of the stuff in one plume.  It’s coming out of Mars at the same rate seen at methane-producing spots on Earth.

Those places on Earth happen to be places where microbes are churning the gas out. There might be other ways of getting plumes of methane into the air–generating it from magma, for example. But in a paper published today by Science, Mumma and his colleagues point to the possibility that microbes buried a mile or two under the surface of Mars might be responsible. There are certainly analogs here on Earth–or here under Earth. On our planet, scientists can study these deep microbes by traveling down through mine shafts. Sending the equipment to dig a mine shaft on Mars might be a wee bit expensive, unfortunately.

So–what’s going on? I’ve just tuned into a 2 pm press conference at NASA, and I’ll do a little live-blogging for you and update this post.

Source: “Strong Release of Methane on Mars in Nornern Summer 2003,” MJ Mumma et al, Science January 15, 2009

Press conference notes:

2:01 Mars is “active.” Diplomatic, I guess.

2:03 Mumma shows a cool demonstration of how they measured the gas by looking at how light passed through it. What blows me away about this is that all this was done from Earth, with ground-based telescopes. Between this and the discovery of exoplanets, ground-based telescopes are doing some awesome stuff these days.

2:05 Mumma points out that this methane comes and goes. So, it’s coming from somewhere and being removed and being replaced. Also, this is the first definitive identification of methane on Mars.

2:06 Mumma’s choices: volcanoes or bugs.

2:07 Now Geronimo Villaneuva from Catholic University is explaining how they found where the stuff is coming from. These places have a “rich history.” Water flowed there before. So maybe water is underground there now (supporting life)?

2:09 Measuring isotopes in the future could help determine wha’s making this stuff.

2:10 A scientist named Sushil Atreya from the University of Michigan who wasn’t involved in the research is commenting. Offering up possibilities–geology, ie water and rock; or biology. Could be stored in the past and being released now.

2:12 Atreya is talking about how Mars may be getting rid of methane. Light can knock it out over centuries. Or maybe oxidants in the atmosphere.

2:14 Lisa Pratt of Indiana University is talking biology. She is stoked.

2:15 Okay, I mean as stoked as scientists get at press conferences where they talk about photic zones. You can see it in the rise of her eyebrows.

2:15 Subpermafrost brines on Earth are a good model. Or radioactive minerals splitting water to hydrogen, reacts it with carbon dioxide to make methane deep underground.

2:16 Pratt wants to look for life on Mars that’s exhaling methane. I think she just called it prudent to look for it. What a fascinating word to choose…

2:17 Reporters are now asking questions.

2:18 Mumma points out that if volcanoes were making the methane, you’d expect other gases too, which they don’t see. NASA will look for other things that would be consistent with biology.

2:21 Mumma is explaining some of the backstory–first reports of observations were in 2003. We knew we had methane since late 2003, he says. But they’ve been working to make the data “unassailable.” We’ll see…

2:22 Mike Meyer of NASA: Mars Science Laboratory, a planned probe to the surface of Mars could do a better job of measuring the methane–including the balance of isotopes. (Methane from life has a slightly different balance than methane from volcanoes.)

2:24 Seth Borenstein from AP is asking about picking where to drop MSL. Four sites have already been named finalists, but Meyer is saying that they’ve “reset the clock” on the selection process.

2:25 A question on digging: Lisa Pratt says we’d have to go down to where water stays melted. A shallow drill won’t cut it. A “very thin nearly invisible film” of bacteria may be spread over fractured rocks.

2:27 Mumma seems to be suggesting a deep drill isn’t the only possibility. Maybe just peek under permafrost.

2:27 Pratt is talking about how much water you have to filter to find microbes from the deep Earth. So this won’t be a cake-walk on Mars.

2:28 A question about methane from comets. Atreya says that the comet would have to be several kilometers across and hit in the past few centuries. “We would have known it.” We don’t. So probably comets can be ruled out.

2:31 Mumma: what is the right strategy to exploit this discovery? We need to measure Mars surface all the time to find all the active vents, figure out what’s coming out of them, find the most likely to be biological, and decide where we really want to go.

2:33 [Let's just note that this announcement comes from NASA right before a new administration comes in, at a time when spending priorities are in serious flux. Just sayin'.]

2:35 Back to the science: Lisa Pratt says methane from rock (serpentinization) is rare on Earth and actually plugs up active sites. This is why she takes biology seriously as “slightly more plausible.”

2:39 If life is deep underground, the water released with the methane may be very old. Age of water can also be estimated from isotopes.

2:41 Pratt says we need to find a haze of biomarkers in the atmosphere or drill. [She has done an admirable job of resisting the urge to say Drill, baby, drill. ; ) ]

2:42 Ken Chang at the Times has an article up–no comments from outside researchers.

2:45 Mumma: How to study an active Mars? [It's not a dead museum now.]

2:47 These guys are talking to each other now, not to the reporters. Hey–maybe we missed some other evidence from our orbiters–maybe we could do certain tests on minerals, etc….

2:48 In the comments, Joe asked if they found helium. Nothing in the paper or the press conference so far.

2:49 Atreya says, “Just remember, we’re talking about life as we know it.” A shout-out for weird life–excellent!

2:51 Jason asks in the comments if it’s enough methane for astronauts to use for energy. No.

2:53 I mean, no, not the plume they found. Mumma is making the point that we don’t know how much methane Mars is belching. (Do microbes belch? Is this Martian flatus?)

2:54 If we don’t know if the production is geo or bio, we know it’s easier to live by consuming methane. “It gives us a bull’s eye to look for.” Sulfate reduction coupled to methane consumption looks very attractive now–also happens to be one of the oldest ways of making a living on Earth.

2:56 Ken Chang gets the last question: is this a seasonal release? Mumma: We aren’t at liberty to discuss the release in other seasons. [In case you wondered why press embargoes are a bad idea.]

—Well, they’re done. I’m reminded of the press conference long ago when NASA scientists announced that they might have found Martian fossils in meteorites that landed on Earth. Didn’t pan out so well. This time around, the scientists were pretty open about the two different options. And lucky for them, if this is evidence of life, it’s life that’s alive right now, not fossilized for billions of years. It will be easier to find because there’s more of it and it’s letting us know it’s there. Of course, if part of your research programm is getting a two-mile drill to Mars, “easier” is a most relative term.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Life Elsewhere

Comments (49)

  1. Joe Richer

    Cornell astrophysics Prof. Tommy Gold predicted Martian methane 20 years ago in his abiogenic oil theory, detailed in “Deep Hot Biosphere” (1999). He predicted hydrocarbons (oil and gas) on both Earth and Mars not associated with biological processes. This is different from the volcanic theories and would not require associated sulfur compounds. Perhaps Gold’s theory (widely scoffed at) needs to be reexamined.

  2. Wow! Thanks for the live blogging — and wow!

  3. Joe Richer

    I wonder if they found Helium associated with the methane?

  4. Jason Heldenbrand

    How much methane are we talking about? Very slight or sizeable enough for actual use? For instance, for manned missions, could it be a possible source of long term alternative fuels for equipment/habitation?

  5. Patrick

    NY Times is pointing a second mystery. How the methane was destroyed so quickly. Did that come up in the press conference?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/16/science/space/16mars.html

    Carl: Only briefly and indirectly. It might get pulled out by ordinary atmospheric chemistry–oxidation. Or maybe microbes are feeding on it.

  6. Jessica

    In the U.S., cattle emit about 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year, the US dairy cow population is 9 million, so 19,000 million metric tons would mean there is 31,000 cows on Mars.

  7. jlbriem

    Pay attention to the new theories! Yucatan asteroid kills dinosaurs! oops! No dino’s fossils found in area. search (Vredefort, or Manicougen) Much bigger than Chicxulub impact. Deccan Traps volcanism kills dinosaurs! oops! Siberian traps volcanism much bigger than Indian flows or many others!. Life survives global volcanic catastrophe because microbes on earth were way underground! New theory, no oops yet! Nothing found on Mars! Must be water! oops! Must be underground microbes! New Mars theory right on the heels of Earth volcanism-extinction theory, how convenient! No oops yet! Must be proof of life on Mars then! Great theory, untestable, but worth billions in new hardware. Let’s drill down 5- 15 miles on Mars for evidence of microbes! Gamma ray destruction of everything becoming new popular theory, no oops yet! How many asteroids, mega volcanos, and gamma ray bursts have destroyed all life on this little rock? Does life happen so easily that all of it can be destroyed over and over and it just springs back again and again. New theories are a dime a dozen, and if somebody tries to sell you a diamond ring for two nickels, it is probably not worth a dime!!!

  8. Ok, this makes it all the more important that the Russian LIFE (http://www.planetary.org/programs/projects/life/ ) be halted. This makes the contamination risk much more severe.

  9. dreikin

    Any chance this could be contamination? (are the sites emitting methane reasonably near – topologically or geographically – landing sites? Some bacterial spores can last through ANYTHING (almost).

  10. justin fitzsimons

    I think you want 2009 in the citation, not 2008.

    but none the less, this is awesome.

  11. Russell Seitz

    The Martian methane signature has even led to reports of intelligent life on the Op-Ed page of The Wall Street Journal:

    http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110006404

  12. Tom

    Apparently, NASA have said that “the chances of anything coming from Mars, are a million to one” (they said).

    Don’t panic!

  13. Patrick

    Sure they could last, but enough of them getting there and surviving to unload that much methane? That seems pretty implausible.

  14. It was a science fiction fantasy come true: Ten years ago this summer, NASA announced the discovery of life on Mars. At a news conference in Washington, scientists showed magnified pictures of a four-pound Martian meteorite riddled with wormy blobs that looked like bacterial colonies. The researchers explained how they had pried numerous clues from the rock, all strongly supporting their contention that microscopic creatures once occupied its nooks and crannies. It was arguably the space agency’s most imagination-gripping moment since Apollo. Space buffs and NASA officials said that it just might be the scientific discovery of the century. “If the results are verified,” the late Carl Sagan pronounced, “it is a turning point in human history.” Ten years later, the results have not been verified. Skeptics have found nonbiological explanations for every piece of evidence that was presented on Aug. 6, 1996. And though they they still vigorously defend their contention, the NASA scientists who advanced it now stand alone in their belief.

    How many times have we been down this “there may be life on Mars” path already? NASA is just fishing for tax dollars.

  15. Kaleberg

    Russell Seitz Says: “The Martian methane signature has even led to reports of intelligent life on the Op-Ed page of The Wall Street Journal”

    That’s hard to believe. While there may be intelligent life on Mars, there is no intelligent life on the Wall Street Jouranl Op-Ed page.

    (I couldn’t resist.)

  16. Kaleberg

    No intelligent life here either. That should be Journal, not Jouranl.

  17. viggen

    Not so certain how surprising it should be if life is found on Mars. It would be impressive to be sure, but Earth and Mars have been roommates for multiple billion years, meteorites originating from Mars have been found on Earth and experiments have been performed that show some microbes can survive space. It is not inconceivable, given the nearly uncountable chances for such a thing to happen, that life from Earth could have been seeded to Mars by meteorite a long long time ago. Not sure life found there could ever be considered anything but our own planet’s contamination of its surroundings. Still, it would substantially raise the chances of finding life much farther away. If such a life form is related to life found here, it would be interesting to see just how much it has diverged since the transference and it would give perhaps a nice flash-back to our own primordial biochemistry.

    If life from Earth has been seeded to Mars, I wonder if life from Mars holds some obscure extremophile niche here already. The prodigal son returning home, so to speak.*Laughs* who can say just yet: lot’s to learn still and life to be found if it’s there to find.

  18. Crudely Wrott

    What would be astounding and counter intuitive would be notfinding tantalizing evidence pointing to a possibility of life on Mars.

    After all, Mars is just next door and conditions there are only marginally different from conditions here and this place is lousy with life.

    We have suspected as much for a long time, our suspicions only lacking observations which are now coming at us apace.

    We are not alone, but our company lacks acumen in the conversational mode. They cannot describe us at the same time that we can describe them. Best course of action seems to be learning to exploit them before the learn to exploit us. After all, we are on the cusp of interplanetary mobility. They are stuck under the Martian surface.

    I note, too, the dearth of probes from Mars investigating our planet . . .

  19. @Jason Hildebrand

    How much methane are we talking about? Very slight or sizeable enough for actual use? For instance, for manned missions, could it be a possible source of long term alternative fuels for equipment/habitation?

    It would probably be easier to simply split water into hydrogen and oxygen using solar or nuclear power and use the CO2 and hydrogen to make methane for fuel.

  20. Juan

    “We are not alone, but our company lacks acumen in the conversational mode. ”

    I’ve always thought the “Why haven’t they tried to contact us” question is like an ant colony in a Belizian jungle asking the same question about us.

  21. Monkey

    I have a student in my grade 11 class that ran to me yesterday – he is an exchange student from Sweden – and in broken english tried to explain all this to me in about 5 seconds. He managed to get the swedish newspaper, translate it and fill me in as I was teaching!! IT is cool to see kids get excited, even more cool when they find new info and bring it to you!

    Good stuff here Carl; I will put this up in my class today and fill all the rest of my students in. Thanks.

  22. Monkey

    RE: JUAN – “I’ve always thought the “Why haven’t they tried to contact us” question is like an ant colony in a Belizian jungle asking the same question about us.”

    Nice. Well put.

  23. Spiv

    “Intelligent Designer:” The discovery wasn’t made by NASA in the first place. Not to mention they have a whopping 0.2 to 0.5% of the federal budget, depending on whether you count social security and medicare. On top of that, NASA prefers not to do things that will result in another “presidential directive,” on account of them almost always being unfunded directives. When that happens other programs get gutted to support the new thing.

    This is not an asteroid on earth from mars, this is something producing massive amounts of methane on the red planet itself. Scientists are very open with the possibilities, as always, but likewise the press is always ready to jump to conclusions.

    And don’t worry: finding life on another planet won’t change your unshakable faith anyway. You’ll just have to plant one more “put there to test our faith” or “devil did it.” . It really isn’t an issue of religion anyway. It’s an issue of science.

    Your quote has a lot of “if” and “might” language in it; which still holds true. If this is confirmed, it might be one of the biggest discoveries since heliocentricity. It will take a while to find out though. The best way to find out is to put it out there to the science community and get some more people working on possibilities.

  24. I have a slightly OT question for Carl or one a knowledgeable commenter. When I did some googling for other evidences of life on Mars, I came across the following article on rocks with etchings similar to bacterial activity on Earth.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/05/060512105730.htm

    One of the things discussed in the article is that the researchers tried to extract DNA from the tunnels, but were unable to do so. I would imagine that if life arose independently on Mars, that it wouldn’t use DNA, but whatever molecule originated there capable of passing on genetic information.

    So, my question is, were the researches simply using “DNA” as shorthand for long polymer molecule, or is there some reason to believe that whatever that molecule turns out to be, that it will have properties very similar to DNA, and thus current methods for extracting DNA should work on it as well?

  25. While the work of Mumma is impressive I have a strong issue that he claims the first discovery of methane on Mars.

    Please note this Science paper in 2004: Discovery of methane in the martian atmosphere, http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/306/5702/1758

    In addition I would like you to note of the following:
    2:21 Mumma is explaining some of the backstory–first reports of observations were in 2003. We knew we had methane since late 2003, he says. But they’ve been working to make the data “unassailable.

    Well, bad luck, Mr. Mumma. It is not the fault of Vittorio Formisano and his Co-workers that your data in 2003 were not good enough to publish them in a peer reviewed paper or you decided to wait a little until the data quality would be better.

    Instead you seem to have published your results here:

    M. J. Mumma et al., Bull. Am. Astron. Soc. 35, 937 (2003)
    Yeah, great. The Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society. Big Deal. Has somebody a link to publication? I cannot find it.

    It appears to me that Mr. Mumma and NASA try to diminish the role of Vittorio Formisano. In my book he still remains the first true discoverer of methane on Mars.

  26. Carolyn

    I want to believe this is evidence of life…but there have been so many recent findings like this that have gotten everyone excited and then…nothing.
    http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/science/2009/jan/Methane-Belch-Ignites-Yet-Another-Discussion-of-Life-on-Mars.html

  27. Edna Gardener

    According to Wikipedia:

    “Methane clathrate, also called methane hydrate or methane ice, is a solid form of water that contains a large amount of methane within its crystal structure (a clathrate hydrate). Originally thought to occur only in the outer regions of the Solar System where temperatures are low and water ice is common, significant deposits of methane clathrate have been found under sediments on the ocean floors of Earth. [1]”

    The release of methane could indicate a continuation of the Martian warming trend that has caused the former flows of water to sink subsurface. As the deepest soil warms, the methane hydrates melt, releasing methane into the atmosphere.

    Scientists predict that sufficient global warming on Earth could melt the deep sea methane hydrates, releasing catastrophic amounts of additional greenhouse gasses into Earth’s atmosphere.

  28. Diego

    “RE: JUAN – “I’ve always thought the “Why haven’t they tried to contact us” question is like an ant colony in a Belizian jungle asking the same question about us.”

    Nice. Well put”

    I’m not so sure that analogy is working: the ants may not be asking the question ‘why haven’t they tried to contact us’, but we’re certainly very interested in them. Check ‘The Soul of the White Ant’ by Eugene Marais, or ask any entomologist.

  29. Glenn

    Something smells in here? Maybe, it’s all the methane being expelled from all the verbal flatulence on display here.

    [Carl: Glenn, not only is that a cheap shot at my readers, but it's a lousy metaphor. Methane is odorless.]

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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