Do Martian methane and organic compounds point to life?

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  • Published: Dec 20, 2014
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Atomic / Infrared Spectroscopy / Raman / Chemometrics & Informatics / Proteomics / X-ray Spectrometry / NMR Knowledge Base / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Base Peak / MRI Spectroscopy

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A spike in the levels of methane on Mars combined with the discovery of organic compounds in Martian rocks has led some observers to speculate that there may be life on the planet after all.

The SAM instrument on the Curiosity rover has been measuring surface levels of methane for the past 20 months, establishing background levels of about 0.7 ppb. However, NASA were surprised to observe a 10-fold spike over 60 sols to 7.2 ppb before falling again.

"This temporary increase in methane - sharply up and then back down - tells us there must be some relatively localized source," said Sushil Atreya who is on the Curiosity rover science team. "There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock," she added. This has not prevented the inevitable speculation on live sources of methane, possibly microbial, because 90% of methane on Earth is produced from living organisms.

Some have taken the discovery of organic compounds in a Martian rock as further support for life. SAM discovered chlorobenzene, dichloroethane, dichloropropane and dichlorobutane but NASA scientists say that they were probably produced in the instrument when the rock was heated for analysis. It is known that perchlorate is present in the Martian atmosphere and this might have reacted with carbon-containing compounds ion the rocks. However, that still means that some type of organic compound was present in the first place.

So, while it is difficult at this stage to identify the original organics present in the rock, they nevertheless have created excitement within NASA. "The SAM and Mars Science Laboratory teams have worked very hard to achieve this result," said John Grotzinger on the team. "At the time we first saw evidence of these organic molecules in the Cumberland sample it was uncertain if they were derived from Mars, however, additional drilling has not produced the same compounds as might be predicted for contamination, indicating that the carbon in the detected organic molecules is very likely of Martian origin."

What they are and where they originally came from remains to be unearthed. Or should that be unmarsed?

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

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