Mars Methane Discovery Hints at Presence of Life 01.15.09 Search

The strongest indicator yet that Mars is able to support simple organisms

Matthew Moore

Large quantities of the gas -- which on Earth is mostly produced by living things -- were recorded by three huge telescopes during a seven year study.

Large quantities of the gas -- which on Earth is mostly produced by living things -- were recorded by three huge telescopes during a seven year study.

The level of activity was so great that at times it equalled the amount of the gas released at some of the most methane-rich locations on Earth.

Scientists say that further investigation is necessary to determine whether the gas - spotted in 2003 -- was created by the biological processes of creatures such as microbes, or from volcanic activity.

"Living systems produce more than 90% of Earth's atmospheric methane; the balance is of geochemical origin. On Mars, methane could be a signature of either," NASA said in a statement.

Europe's Mars Express probe picked up possible evidence of methane on Mars in 2004, but NASA's latest discovery has been heralded as the strongest indicator yet that the planet is able to support simple organisms.

The methane, which was detected alongside water vapor, could have been a waste product from organisms called methanogens living in water beneath underground ice, experts believe.

Professor Colin Pillinger, whose Beagle 2 craft crashed on Mars in 2003 while on a mission to seek signs of life, said the discovery could prove important.

"Methane is a product of biology. For methane to be in Mars's atmosphere, there has to be a replenishable source," he told The Sun.

"[Life is] the most obvious source of methane is organisms. So if you find methane in an atmosphere, you can suspect there is life.

"It's not proof, but it makes it worth a much closer look."

NASA announced the full results of the study at a briefing in Washington 1.15.09.

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