Methane on Mars `not an indication for life`

Researchers has found a major source of methane on Mars, which may bring “down to earth” all those who firmly believe in the biological origin of the gas.

Updated: Jun 01, 2012, 12:58 PM IST

Washington: A team of researchers has found a major source of methane on Mars, which may bring “down to earth” all those who firmly believe in the biological origin of the gas.

It was a sensation when scientists discovered methane in Mars’ atmosphere nine years ago.

Many saw the presence of the gas as a clear indication of life on the inhospitable planet, as on Earth methane is produced predominantly by biological processes.

Others assumed geological processes, such as volcanoes, to be the cause.

What has been missing until now is proof of where the methane actually comes from, however.

Now, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and the universities in Utrecht and Edinburgh have been able to show that methane escapes from a meteorite if it is irradiated with ultraviolet light under Martian conditions.

Since meteorites and interplanetary dust from space, which carry along carbonaceous compounds, continuously impact on the Martian surface, the researchers conclude that high-energy UV radiation triggers the release of methane from the meteorites.

“Methane is produced from innumerable, small micro-meteorites and interplanetary dust particles that land on the Martian surface from space,” explained Frank Keppler, lead author of the study.

“The energy is provided by the extremely intense ultraviolet radiation,” added the atmospheric chemist.

Unlike Earth, Mars has no protective ozone layer, which could absorb most of the UV radiation from space. Moreover, the Martian atmosphere is very thin, so that a significantly smaller portion of the meteoritic material burns up in the atmosphere compared to Earth.

Together with colleagues from Great Britain and the Netherlands, the researchers from Mainz irradiated samples of the Murchison meteorite with ultraviolet light.

“The meteorite contains several percent carbon and has a similar chemical composition to most of the meteoritic matter that lands on Mars,” said the cosmochemist Ulrich Ott.

The 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite fell to Earth in 1969 in the Australian town of Murchison. The researchers selected conditions identical to those on Mars for the UV irradiation, which caused considerable quantities of methane to escape from the meteorite almost immediately. Their conclusion: carbonaceous compounds in the meteoritic matter are decomposed by the high-energy UV radiation, and methane molecules are formed in the process.

Since the temperature on the red planet varies from minus 143 degrees Celsius at the poles to plus 17 degrees Celsius at Mars’ equator, the scientists also investigated the meteoritic samples at appropriate temperatures. The warmer it became, the more methane was released by the meteoritic fragments.

This temperature dependence also agrees with the different methane concentrations at different locations in the Martian atmosphere. In infrared spectra, the largest concentration of methane was found in the equatorial region, the warmest place on Mars, relatively speaking.

The researchers cannot fully exclude the hypothesis of Martian microbes, however, because, although the process found here is inevitable, it is quite possible that further processes contribute to methane production.

The researchers hope that Curiosity, the Mars Rover that NASA expects to land on our neighbouring planet at the beginning of August, will provide more details on the formation of methane, and maybe even final clarification as to whether there is life on Mars.

The study has been published in the research journal Nature.