Mexican scientist helps discover methane on Martian atmosphere

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Finding may hint at possibility of life on red planet.

Rafael Navarro Gonzalez, of the Natural Science Institute (ICN) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), was part of the team of scientists that make up the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) who have made a surprising discovery.

The “Curiosity” robot currently being used by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to explore the surface of Mars and take samples, has discovered a fluctuating source of methane.

What does this mean?

On Earth, tiny microorganisms called methanogens produce approximately 90% of the methane emissions in our atmosphere. Some of these organisms are anaerobic, which means they don’t need oxygen to live, and therefore can be found in closed caverns or buried deep in the ground.

The presence of methane on the fourth planet’s atmosphere is itself no guarantee of life. Volcanic activity is, for example, one possible source.

According to Navarro, these emissions could also be caused by chemical reactions beneath the subsoil that leave hydrocarbon trapped in cracks. It is possible then that, following some form of tectonic movement, gas would be liberated to the atmosphere.

The second option would also constitute a significant find, as there is no precedent of tectonic or volcanic activity on Mars to date.

methane Martian atmosphere

The Next Step

At the very least, this discovery means there’s still much to learn from activity on the red planet, which is why NASA has already programmed its next mission to Mars for 2016. The “Insight” space probe will be sent carrying a built-in seismograph.

With the purpose of studying the climate and geology of Mars, in 2008 NASA sent Phoenix, the space probe that – among other discoveries – found ice on the planet’s surface.

The current Curiosity explorer carries a built-in laboratory known as the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), the design of which Navarro Gonzalez was involved in.

The UNAM scientist anticipated that NASA is already looking for the new routes to be covered, either by Curiosity or its successor, which should be sent to Mars in 2020.

Navarro stated that for the moment it is not possible to determine the source of the methane’s emissions. However, he highlighted that the importance of this discovery is in revealing previously unknown activity on this planet. The relevance of upcoming missions, would be to clarify if the discovery is related to a chemical, geological or biological process.

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