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July 22, 2009

Scientific Unknowns: Mars' Methane Leak

In January of this year, researchers using two telescopes at Mauna Kea in Hawaii found large amounts of methane in Mar's atmosphere. Their findings showed that the methane varied on location and time of year. For scientists, this discovery is really exciting. "Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."

Since methane doesn't just hang out in Mars' atmosphere, where is it coming from? So far there are two main ideas. The first is that there is some geologic process under the surface that is producing methane. If this is true, then Mars is not as geologically dead as we thought. The other possibility got a lot more press when the story was released. This is the idea that microbial life under the surface is expelling this methane as part of its metabolism.

As exciting as the possibility of life on Mars is, we can't jump to conclusions. The reality is that we know the methane is there, not what is producing it. Regardless of what the answer is, it will be extremely exciting for planetary scientists.

For a more in depth look I recommend Phil Plait's review at Bad Astronomy

Image Credit -NASA