Sunday, January 18, 2009

Martian Methane -- Volcanic Discharge or Microbial Flatus?

Thanks to the impressive tools that modern day astronomers have at their disposal, two episodes of methanic discharge have been observed on another planet. It may not seem impressive, but we have reached a point in our technological sophistication to directly probe the atmosphere of a completely different world for the gaseous signature of various chemical elements. This technological feat is not just limited to the atmosphere of Mars, but extends to those of planets in other stellar systems. We can probe the atmosphere of planetary bodies that are hundreds of light years away from Earth, which would shock atmospheric scientists of the early 20th century. It's easy to look at the world through cynical eyes as a failed experiment run randomly by semi-intelligent sentient apes, but some of these vary same hairless apes have developed the tools to investigate the universe in which they inhabit. This simple fact seems to gloss over the minds of many people. It is easy to become disheartened at a world seemingly embroiled in chaos. We see wars, famines, natural disasters, poverty, homicides, human rights violations, among other negatives on a daily basis, but such tunnel vision allows us to overlook the achievements of human endeavors. Even these achievements in science and technology seem to become vilified by people who fear and don't understand concepts that may appear alien to them. Many people feel that if something is beyond their limited understanding and scope, than it must be false, or should be attributed to a higher supernatural power. Science, and scientific thinking is hard, and critically analyzing a subject may seem like a torturous road of cognitive reasoning, but the triumphs of science cannot be overstated. Science has provided us a tool and method of thought to break away from our animal cousins, and steer our intelligence towards explaining our origins and our future. Our capacity to find other beings of our intelligence continues to fascinate many people, yet some feel so strongly for this, that they're willing to believe in extra-terrestrial visitors on minimal evidence. Evolution has provided our minds with a visceral reaction to find evidence in favor of our belief structure, whilst ignoring that which may prove contrary to our pre-determined notions.

The article that started this inquiry into the favorable role that science has played in our lives is the discovery of two discharge events of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. On Earth, such events are often biological in origin, usually from microbes. As is often the case though, restraint must be practiced until further evidence is found to indicate the biological hypothesis. Until then, we are left to guess at the possible causes of these methane spikes. Owing to the difference in the Martian environment and atmosphere, perhaps some kind of chemical reaction that mimics a biological event occurred. Even with this in mind, our inquisitive nature can allow us to imagine the possibilities that these events indicate the existence of life on another planet. If so, does this life resemble that of our own? Does Martian life use DNA as its genetic blueprint? Are the chemical reactions of Martian bacteria similar to that of Earth? Is it possible that our planets share a common ancestral organism? If so, how likely is it that such an organism came to Earth in one, or multiple events? Since the escape velocity of Earth is higher than that of Mars, and knowing that early Martian atmosphere was most likely able to support liquid water, it is more likely that if the Earth and Mars shared a common microbial ancestor, the origin would probably be Mars. This begs the question, after all these years of searching for life on mars, are we ourselves Martians? Are we the enemy that H.G Wells popularized? If there are organisms currently living on Mars, are we the invaders that will contaminate them?

The following picture provides the possible chemical and perhaps biological roles that may come into play in the production of Martian methane. Yet, the amount detected in the two observed methane episodes seems far more than is possible from the chemical reactions indicated. It's possible that there are chemical pathways we have not yet uncovered, so the jury on this is definitely still out. It does however increase our fascination with Mars, and should make Mars a priority for detecting exobiological organisms. Congress, it is in your hands to increase the funding to help us better understand our place in the universe.


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