Not since the 1996 discovery of a controversial Martian meteorite, bearing clues of fossil microscopic life, has the planetary science community been abuzz about Mars. Last week, NASA researchers announced that they have detected methane - tons of it! - in the atmosphere of Mars.
Methane is the prime component of natural gas here on Earth, so that's why this discovery indicates that the Red Planet is alive - either biologically or geologically.
"Right now, we do not have enough information to tell whether biology or geology - or both - is producing the methane on Mars," NASA researcher Michael Mumma said in a prepared statement last week. "At northern mid-summer on Mars, methane is being released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."
Oddly, the Martian methane was detected not by billion-dollar U.S. and European space probes now orbiting the distant planet, but instead by old-fashioned, Earth-based observing. Astronomers used NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii to make the discovery.
Finely calibrated spectrometers on the big telescopes in Hawaii were used to break down Mars' reflected light into a colorful spectrum. The spectrum's component colors were, in turn, studied in minute detail. After examining all the colors, astronomers finally isolated three spectral features - called absorption lines - that bore the fingerprints of methane gas.
So why all the buzz about methane - aka "cow gas" - a common greenhouse gas on Earth? Well, if there is Martian life producing the methane as excreta, it appears to be doing it deep below the planet's surface. Some astronomers - not all - think that deep inside the Red Planet there's liquid water at temperatures that may resemble Vermont on a balmy spring evening.
And, of course, we know that when you bring liquid water, plus energy, plus carbon together, there's a good chance for life - at least life as we know it.