Saturday science subject: Martian methane

The presence of methane on Mars isn't entirely news in itself—we've known about it since 2003—but new research has shed a considerable amount of light on the presence of the gas on the red planet. As New Scientist reports, Michael Mumma of the Goddard Space Flight Center and his team have used a pair of telescopes in Hawaii to build a "high-resolution map" of methane on Mars, allowing them to "pinpoint three areas just north of the Martian equator that seem to be the source of the gas."

"We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tonnes of methane," team member Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, said in a statement. "The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons, spring and summer, perhaps because ice blocking cracks and fissures vaporised, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air."

According to Sushil Atreya from the University of Michigan, previous observations "gave only a hint of broad areas of possibly large abundances of methane." The new findings provide stronger evidence, and they tell researchers where to look for the source of the methane.

That source could be ancient pockets of gas generated by the mixing of water and volcanic rock, but it might also be microbes living below the surface. Atreya comments, "Whatever the source, it indicates the presence of liquid water underground, and that there is some type of activity going on - biologic or geologic, and that is exciting." When NASA's Mars Science Laboratory arrives on the red planet in 2012, it could analyze the gas to see if it contains the right levels of a carbon isotope found in biologically generated methane here on Earth.

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