London: A new NASA probe due to land on Mars’ surface in August is set to prove for the first time that methane clouds form over the surface of the planet in summer months - meaning the conditions for life unquestionably exist.
The Mars Science Laboratory Rover, also known as Curiosity, will be able to detect microscopic amounts of methane.
If is succeed in its mission, it will be the first time scientists at NASA will have been able to prove the existence of methane clouds, the existence of which have only previously been deduced from astrological observations.
“The reports are extraordinary,” the Daily Mail quoted Kevin Zahnle of NASA Ames Research Center as saying of the possibility of finally finding methane clouds.
“They require methane to have a life time of days or weeks in the martian atmosphere, which disagrees with the known behaviour of methane by at least a factor of 1000,” he explained.
However, some sceptical scientists still insist that the methane is a result of geology, and the prospect of life is a red herring.
Zahnle said we can’t disregard what we know about methane.
“What we say is that the evidence is not nearly strong enough for us to suspend our trust in the known chemical behaviour of methane,” he said.
However senior NASA scientist Michael J. Mumma who leads one of the groups that made the methane observations stands by his research.
“Based on evidence, what we do have is, unequivocally, the conditions for the emergence of life were present on Mars — period, end of story. So life certainly could have arisen there,” Mumma told the Daily Galaxy.
“We stand by our results. True, the measurement is difficult, but it is not impossible,” he insisted.
Mumma thinks the paper by Zahnle and his coauthors has been ‘a disservice,’ so he plans to write a rebuttal.
“The community needs to understand the weakness of this argument,” he added.
Mumma and his colleagues have estimated that the largest plumes on Mars would require a source that releases methane at rates comparable to the world’s largest hydrocarbon seep, which is in California.
Although thoughts turned to little methane-belching martians, geochemical processes could potentially produce these levels of methane on Mars. The jury is still out as to which of the various candidates is the most likely source.
First Published: Sunday, February 19, 2012, 16:00