Mars has Cows

Surprisingly, it seems there is a very good possibility of life existing outside the Earth, but still within our solar system.

Mars has methane, which implies the presence of volcanic or tectonic out-gassing or microbial life. We know Mars has been geologically inactive for hundreds of millions if not billions of years, so that’s leaving the methane looking decidedly like an organic by-product. This is one of the things NASA’s Curiosity Rover is going to investigate when it lands on Mars in 2012.

Methane, or CH4 as it’s known to its friends, is simple molecule, but it cannot survive in the Martian atmosphere for any significant length of time because…

  • The lack of a planetary magnetic core leaves it vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation that breaks the molecule apart
  • The lack of substantial gravity and lack of protection from solar wind, means the thin Martian atmosphere gets stripped off into space quite easily

It’s interesting to note that micro-organisms, on Earth, at least, produce methane through a simple process known as methanogenesis, an anaerobic reaction (that doesn’t require oxygen). It’s a reaction that’s perfectly suited to the red planet as the principle pathway required for this chemical reaction is carbon dioxide and the result is methane and water. With all three molecular suspects and one element present on Mars, there’s a good case to go looking for bugs.

CO2 + 8 H+ + 8 e → CH4 + 2 H2O

Methane has also been detected on Titan, although this may be from geological activity.

Titan, on the other hand, has its own peculiar mysteries. Hydrogen, which is abundant in the upper atmosphere, is curiously absent lower down, which implies it has probably been absorbed by something, something that just might be alive.

If this bears out under more scrutiny, it would raise the fascinating prospect that there could be lifeforms using hydrogen as we use oxygen.

If Mars and Titan both have life, and I know it’s a big ask, but if they do, then we would have the remarkable prospect of living in a solar system that has three habitable environments and two, possibly three, distinctly different types of lifeforms. If that turns out to be the case, then the prospect of finding life elsewhere in the universe, and possibility of there being intelligent extraterrestrial life, would leap up exponentially.

Now, there’s plenty of other avenues for methane production to consider before the champagne corks get popped, but what a tantalising possibility. These are exciting times in which we live.

I’m intensely curious about what Curiosity will uncover on the red planet, aren’t you?

4 thoughts on “Mars has Cows

  1. I personally think it’s a waste of time trying to find life on Mars. The Martians have existed long before us. They have probably visited our planet and after what they saw decided that it would be in their best interest not to have any contact with us humans. They would probably do everything in their power not to be discovered by us, but hey, we can try.

    • For three billion years, the only life on Earth was bacteria, so if life exists or ever existed on Mars, it may well have followed a similar path and might not have had the time/opportunity to progress beyond microbes, this is the reason NASA is so interested in the salty brine that appears each summer on Mars, leaking out from subsurface springs. If there’s life, that’s probably where we’ll find it…

      If, and it’s a big if… but if any form of life is found on Mars, that would fundamentally alter the way we look at life in outer space, particularly if it has different fundamentals, like using a different amino acid in its version of DNA or whatever equivalent it has for passing characteristics from one generation to the next. If life exists anywhere else in our solar system AND that life has a different basis, then the prospects for life elsewhere in the universe would go through the roof…


  2. Pingback: Intensely curious « THINKING SCIFI

  3. Pingback: The case for life on Mars | THINKING SCI-FI

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