Mars methane discovery means planet not dead as a doorknob

NASA and university researchers said today that methane has been detected in Mars atmosphere, further indicating the red planet is either biologically or at least geologically active.

Using spectrometers  on NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility and the W.M. Keck telescope, both located in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, researchers detected the gas which is made up of four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom and is the main component of natural gas on Earth, NASA stated.

Astrobiologists are interested in these data because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane.

NASA said if microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface where it is warm enough for liquid water to exist. Liquid water is necessary for all known forms of life, as are energy sources and a supply of carbon.

"We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane," said Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America in Washington in a release. "The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons, spring and summer, perhaps because ice blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air."

According to the team, the plumes were seen over areas that show evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water. Plumes appeared over the Martian northern hemisphere regions and the south-east quadrant of the planet's Syrtis Major, an ancient volcano about 745 miles across.

It will take future missions, like NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, to discover the origin of the Martian methane.  The lab was initially expected to launch this year buy NASA now says it will be likely 2011.

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