New signs point to life on Mars

The idea of life on Mars has transfixed humans ever since 1854, when William Whewell first theorised the existence of land and seas on the red planet. Later telescopic observations of Martian “canals” further fuelled the speculation, inspiring H.G. Wells’ 1898 War of the Worlds. The 20th century would be filled with more scientific investigation and pop culture references, ranging from the satiric Mars Attack to the BBC’s Doctor Who. Of course, the imagined seas and canals were very soon shown to be nonexistent. But other discoveries have been made, strengthening the case for the existence of real “Martians”. Now, at the dawn of a new decade, shocking new research indicates that the presence of methane on Mars could be evidence of life on the Red Planet.
Methane was first discovered on Mars in 2004,  but until now scientists have been mystified as to its origin. Biological processes or volcanic activity were both cited as potential sources, while others maintained the methane came from impacting meteorites on the Martian surface. However, the possibility of meteroric origin has been ruled out by scientists from Imperial College London who claim the methane must have come from something happening on the surface.
Experiments were conducted which showed that meteorites falling from the sky produce about 10kg of methane each year. This, however, was far below the 100-300 tonnes needed to maintain the current levels, indicating that the two likely sources are either volcanic activity or gases produced by microbes living on the planet’s surface.
Professor Mark Sephton of the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, and co-author of the report, comments, “This work is a big step forward. As Sherlock Holmes said, eliminate all other factors and the one that remains must be the truth. The list of possible sources of methane gas is getting smaller and excitingly, extraterrestrial life still remains an option.”
The findings have impressed Kevin Nolan, physics lecturer at the Tallaght Institute of Technology and author of the internationally sold book, Mars, A Cosmic Stepping Stone. “The methane being generated on Mars is indigenous to Mars,” he said. “It is a big deal.” The gas hasn’t been around there for long, he explained.
The sun breaks down methane very quickly and changes it into other chemicals. “It doesn’t last for more than two years in the Martian atmosphere. If methane is there, it is being produced right now.”
Although many associate the Red Planet with explosive volcanos, Nolan claims there are few signs of recent volcanic activity, with the last major events taking place several million years ago.
At best, there were signs of activity several hundred thousand years ago, and thus any resultant methane would have been destroyed long ago.
This leaves the tantalising possibility that living, multiplying microbes currently occupying the Martian biosphere are the source of the methane. Nolan believes this finding is philosophically significant as well as biologically. It could teach us about the origins of life and also about its cosmic abundance, providing “insights into the nature of life itself.”
The discovery of traces of methane in 2004 by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express shocked scientists around the globe and prompted American and European researchers to plan a joint satellite mission for 2018 to investigate the source of the methane.
“This will affect all future explorations of Mars,” Mr. Nolan said. It will give scientists a target at the surface to go dig for the possible first confirmation of life of extraterrestrial origin.
All in all, the findings and its implications seem to present a strong argument in favour of life existing on Mars. We will have to wait until 2018 for conclusive proof but for the moment it no longer seems as far-fetched to suggest that the ubiquitous sci-fi Martians that have appeared so often in our fantasies may become a reality.
The Universe, perhaps, will no longer seem so lonely.