Traces of methane have been discovered in meteorites from Mars, providing a possible clue in the search for life on the Red Planet.
The international team of researchers, who made the finding and were led by geologist John Parnell from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, examined samples from six meteorites of volcanic rock strongly suspected to have originated on Mars. Evidence that these pieces of rock came from the Red Planet are due to the fact that they contain an identical proportion and composition of gases as the Martian atmosphere.
Crushing the six Mars rocks, Parnell and his team discovered that methane leaked from the meteorites. For comparison, the planetary scientists also examined two non-Martian samples and found them to contain less of the odourless gas. After some consideration, the researchers have been left wondering if the methane serves as a food source for forms of life possibly living beneath Red Planet’s surface – something microbes on Earth can be found doing in a range of environments. “Our findings will likely be used by astrobiologists in models and experiments aimed at understanding whether life could survive below the surface of Mars today,” says Sean McMahon from Yale University, who intends to analyse more meteorites.
“One of the most exciting developments in the exploration of Mars has been the suggestion of methane in the Martian atmosphere,” says Parnell. “Recent and forthcoming missions by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are looking at this, although it is so far unclear where the methane comes from and even whether it is really there. However, our research provides a strong indication that rocks on Mars contain a large reservoir of methane.”
Meanwhile, McMahon is confident that the team’s discovery may prove helpful in future Mars rover experiments. “Even if Martian methane does not directly feed microbes, it may signal the presence of a warm, wet, chemically reactive environment where life could thrive,” he says.