If humans ever discover life on Mars, this is how it might start: with a breaking-news alert heralding a startling development well beyond Earth. NASA quickly published a press release acknowledging the detection, which, the Times had reported , marked the largest amount of methane ever registered by the Curiosity rover, a NASA mission that touched down on the red planet in But after that, the agency went quiet.
The news had come from an email between scientists on the Curiosity team that had been leaked to the Times. Alien life is on that list, but other sources are far more likely. But some scientists say it may lurk beneath the surface, in the form of tiny organisms. Perhaps a similar arrangement exists on Mars.
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This chemistry is what makes the spike that Curiosity found so intriguing. If methane is present in the Martian atmosphere right now, it must have been released fairly recently.
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Detectable quantities might be a sign that something is alive on Mars, capable of replenishing the supply. Or not.
Former NASA Scientist Is 'Convinced' We've Already Found Evidence of Life on Mars
Natural interactions between rock and water can also produce the gas. The methane might have been forged deep beneath the Martian surface—where reservoirs of ancient water chafe against sediment—escaping into the atmosphere through a narrow crack in the ground. The whiff Curiosity caught might have been billions of years old.
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Read: When a Harvard professor talks about aliens. Martin van Kranendonk, director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales, suggests that it is also possible to look for life signs at the types of places where life might have originated. Scientists once believed that these places would have been undersea hydrothermal vents, where important chemicals are expelled up from deep in the crust. Hot springs pools, on the other hand, present no such problems.
They also experience fluctuating water levels that produce altering wet and dry cycles — just the thing, laboratory experiments have shown, needed to cause small molecules to link into ever-larger chains. Even on Earth, traces of ancient life are rare and scattered.
If we someday find such traces, one of the mantras of science is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. No ifs, buts, or maybes. Evidence of life on Mars will need absolute proof. This article appears in Issue 82 of Cosmos magazine. To subscribe, and have the latest science delivered direct to your door or inbox, click here.
Digital Issues Buy a back issue. Renew my subscription Give a Gift Manage my subscription. News Space 08 March Is there life on Mars? Let's assess the evidence.
Since the nineteenth century, people have been obsessed with finding life on the Red Planet, but is there any real basis for supposing is does, or did, exist? Richard A Lovett sifts through the data. Scientists posit microbes on Enceladus and Mars Space. Explore Mars. Richard A.fuedandefeebubb.gq
Lovett is a Portland, Oregon-based science writer and science fiction author. Looking for more science? Click here to see our subscription options. Click here to see our gift options.
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