The first hints of life on Mars have been discovered by Nasa’s Curiosity Rover. ‘Burps’ of methane have been found and recorded by the Rover which may have been produced by bacteria. Most methane on Earth is produced as a waste gas by living organisms.
The exploring machine has previously determined water bound in the fine soil of the planet, believed to be crucial to life. But if the existence of living, breathing microbes is confirmed, it will be the first evidence of life outside Earth.
“What is interesting is that these spikes of methane are coming and going. They are transient,” said Dr Paul Mahaffy at Nasa. “At the moment we can’t really tell anything, but these burps are intriguing. We have to keep an open mind.”
“We don’t want to eliminate anything, and potentially it could indicate life or evidence of ancient methane trapped which could show ancient life. But it’s interesting to think about why it comes and goes. It seems to be suggestive of a localised source.”
Dr Chris Webster, of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: “Strictly speaking, our observations are evidence for methane production on Mars, and in themselves cannot directly provide evidence of microbial life. However, from our positive detection of methane on Mars, we cannot rule out the possibility that both the low background level and the high methane values originate in part from microbial activity.”
The agency insists that with more readings it would be possible to test isotope levels which would prove whether the emissions came from a biological source.
The Red Plante is the fourth one from the Sun and is around half the diameter of Earth. However, it is less dense than Earth, having around 15 per cent volume and about 11 per cent mass.
“Previous satellite observations have detected unusual plumes of methane on the planet, but none as extraordinary as the sudden “venting” measured at the crater,” The Telegraph writes. “The new discovery, reported in the journal Science, came from gas samples by Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TAS), an instrument that uses intense light to carry out chemical analysis.”
“The low background level of methane can be explained by the Sun’s rays degrading organic material possibly deposited by meteors,” said the Nasa scientists.
But the readings in a 300 metre squared area spiked 10-fold over a period of just 60 Martian days. By the time Curiosity had travelled a further kilometre, the higher methane levels had disappeared.
In their paper, the US scientists led by Dr Chris Webster, from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, wrote: “The persistence of the high methane values over 60 sols (Martian days) and their sudden drop 47 sols later is not consistent with a well-mixed event, but rather with a local production or venting that, once terminated, disperses quickly.”