Mars Methane Is Not Alive
Small periodic spikes in methane on Mars are turning the Mars-lifers into spin doctors.
The restrained journalists are reporting the facts, but others go beyond the facts into unsupported speculation. Some methane has been detected by the Curiosity rover. Methane has been detected before in the Martian atmosphere. It’s not constant, but occasionally spikes—albeit by very tiny amounts. Methane can be produced biologically or geologically. Usually it disperses quickly unless regenerated. The simplest of hydrocarbons (CH4), it is not uncommon in the solar system. We find it on Earth and at Titan, for instance. Those are the facts.
Does this mean there is life on Mars? The measured amounts are in the parts-per-billion range, from 15 to 45 ppb (compared to 1750 ppb in Earth’s atmosphere, according to the BBC News). Planetary scientist Sushil Atreya is reserved in his interpretations. “Mars is active, both producing and releasing methane,” he says in Nature News‘s coverage, given that it should be destroyed in Mars’ thin atmosphere.
Methane can be generated at least three ways. PhysOrg‘s article begins with an infographic showing how meteorites, chemical reactions in rocks, and life can generate it. National Geographic spent more text on the possibility of life than the other articles, using the word “life” nine times. PhysOrg used the word three times, as did the BBC. Nature did not use the word, except to state, “On Earth, most atmospheric methane gets its start inside living organisms.”
Incidentally, guess what produces large amounts of methane on Earth. According to Science Daily, it’s beavers. The dams they make become methane farms that can alter the climate. Squirrels, too, says the BBC News: they release methane from permafrost.
Update 12/16/14: This just in: at the American Geophysical Union meeting, Cassini scientists say Titan’s lakes are mostly methane, not ethane as predicted from the continuous breakdown of methane by the solar wind. Some of the northern lakes may be 200 meters deep. Tentative evidence of wave action has been seen (very small, just 1.5 cm high, moving 0.7 m/s). “There is an unsolved question underlying this,” a Caltech scientist says. “Where does all the methane come from?” Source: Science Magazine.
National Geographic titillates is readers with materialistic faith whenever it can. Enjoy its pictures, but not its text. It teases with the notion that a biological source of methane “would have profound implications.” So would the discovery of leprechauns or gnomes. How about some facts first?