Life and water on Mars?

The Today show had someone on who stated that signs of life have been found on Mars in the form of underground water and something about methane. I didn’t get to hear the guy and don’t see anything about that on the major new services this morning. What’s up?

So far it’s just been speculation, though the recent announcement sounds like they think it’s a little more.

Previous reports have said they’ve detected small amounts of methane on Mars. In the environment of Mars, methane should break down and disappear quickly. But it’s still there, which means it’s generated somehow, and there aren’t too many options - either it’s geolgical, or an unknown process, or it’s the result of little farting microbes.

I’m simplifying greatly, but I have to leave in a few minutes anyway. Here’s a link on Having skimmed through it, I’m still not exactly sure it is what they claim they’ve found, precisely…

From reading the article, I’m guessing that they may measured isotopic abundances in atmospheric methane that are not consistent with abiotic processes.

Regular carbon is carbon 12 ([sup]12[/sup]C), which contains six protons and six neutrons. A common isotope is carbon 13 ([sup]13[/sup]C), which contains six protons and seven neutrons. Because it has the same number of protons, it’s chemically identical, but the extra neutron makes it a tad heavier.

It could be that there’s a lower ratio of [sup]13[/sup]C to [sup]12[/sup]C in methane (CH[sub]4[/sub]) than in, say, the carbon dioxide and other carbon-bearing molecules in the atmosphere. If that’s the case, it coule be because significant amounts of methane are being given off by living organisms because life tends to have a harder time taking up [sup]13[/sup]C than [sup]12[/sup]C, so the methane they emit would be poor in [sup]13[/sup]C.

It’ll be interesting to see the reaction to the Nature paper. I’m sure that their data analysis will be picked apart by other scientists, and many will propose abiotic mechanisms for producing the observed ratios.

drewbert’s post reminds me of a similar claim about life in the clouds of Venus. It’s from a couple years ago, and I haven’t heard anything more.

Ugh, I just reread my first post, and it made me sound way overconfident about my guess, there. It’s just a WAG, and it may be that drewbert has the better idea . . . I’m just tossing out an alternate possibility.

(And, I swear, I’m going to start reading and proofreading more carefully. I think this is the second instance this week of me posting to a thread 3 times in a row, and I’m rather ashamed of mysef.)

Don’t worry, I appreciate your response. I was curious about the findings and also about the lack of news regarding them. Mostly I was wondering if it was a cold fusion kind of story.

I’m particularly enjoying a farting Martian microbes visual now. I think I’ll use that for the rest of the day.

The lack of press may be due to Nature’s* embargo policy:

The info in the story seems to have been leaked from a private meeting.

The bid deal about the cold fusion announcement is that they didn’t publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal to let other scientists pick it apart, but instead went straight to the press conference where they confidently declared that they were doing cold fusion.

The life-on-Mars story is good science. They may not be correct, but saying that they’ve found intriguing results and publishing them in Nature is definitely the honorable way to go about it. IOW, it’s not a “cold fusion” kind of story.

An entirely separate claim

BTW, just to be clear, my last post should have said, “I’m still not exactly sure what it is they claim they’ve found, precisely…” I was not conveying skepticism so much as early-morning fogginess.

Obviously, it remains to be seen whether either of these tangentially-related hypotheses will hold water, but still — holy crap, what an amazing time we live in, eh?

With regards to water, here’s an interesting article due to be published next month in Nature.

Here’s a quote spelling out the gist of their discovery:

“We have found evidence consistent with a presently-existing frozen body of water, with surface pack-ice, around +5º latitude and 150º east longitude in southern Elysium. It measures about 800 km x 900 km and averages up to 45 m deep: similar in size and depth to the North Sea. It has probably been protected from complete sublimation by a surface sublimation lag formed from suspended sediment exposed by early loss of the surface ice.”
A large, frozen body of water on the surface of Mars! If true, exploration of the planet by humans just became much more feasible, not to mention the increased likelihood of finding past/present life.

NASA slowly backs away…

stochastic, that could be real big. Looking forward to the official announcement.

It may just be little farting Martian microbes today( a good name for a punk band) but tomorrow?

An update on the frozen Martian sea story, an offical press release from Nature
The cool thing is, today’s lesson in my Biology course is on biological succession, and I was able to incorporate this news into a discussion of how life can gain a foothold in new habitats.

If life is found on Mars I have no doubt it would be a truly astounding discovery. I would, however, like to point out a couple of things.

Remember that meteorite found in 1996 that had the possible microbes? Earth and Mars regularly (on a geological timescale) exchange material. If life is found on Mars (or evidence that it once did) there’s a good chance it came from Earth (or, as a more interesting exercise in random thoughts, maybe we’re all decendents of bacteria from Mars). So if life is found on Mars I wouldn’t be at all shocked to find out it is similar in makeup to Earthly microbes. This pretty much makes the whole looking for life on Mars thing something of a pointless effort, though there are a couple of things I’d love to find out about any such life, if it does exist.

  1. How different is it than terrestrial life after so many billions of years in isolation?

  2. If it is different in basic makeup, omfg, awesome, and what is it?
    Also, showing that life exists naturally beyond our pale blue dot would, I’m sure, would bring massive support to programs such as SETI and the further exploration of space.

Still, though, if found on Mars, we still may just be alone in the universe (not that I believe that to be true, just that we’d really be stuck in the same boat again, no proof of anything further than a couple of neighboring rocks that probably exchanged lifeforms).