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article imageMartian meteorites provide intriguing hints of life on Mars

By Robert Myles     Jun 17, 2015 in Science
Aberdeen - A further clue in the search for life on Mars has emerged after a team of scientists discovered traces of methane in Martian meteorites.
So-called Martian meteorites are rocks that formed on Mars but which were ejected from the Red Planet as a result of the impact of an asteroid or comet. Some of these Martian rocks found their way to Earth.
Of more than 61,000 meteorites so far identified as having landed on Earth, as at March 3, 2014, 132 had been pinpointed as originating from Mars. Scientists deduced this since the Martian meteorites have elemental and isotopic compositions similar to rocks and atmospheric gases analyzed by various spacecraft that have landed on Mars.
The new research focused on samples from six meteorites of volcanic rock identified as Martian meteorites. These meteorites contain gases in the same proportions and with the same isotopic composition as gases in the atmosphere of the Red Planet. All six samples also contained methane. The quantity of methane in the Martian meteorites was measured by crushing the rocks and running the gas released through a mass spectrometer.
As a control measure, the researchers also examined two non-Martian meteorites, which contained lesser amounts of methane.
Their findings point to the possibility that methane could be used as a food source by rudimentary forms of life whose habitat lies below the surface of Mars. Here there could be parallels with Earth since a number of terrestrial microbes, known as methanotrophs, fashion their existence from methane in a range of environments.
The study authors told the LA Times, "The availability of methane and hydrogen is critical to the potential of the Martian crust as a habitat for microbial life. The hostile Martian surface is probably less habitable than the subsurface, and several scenarios have been proposed for deep Martian life.”
Commenting on the findings, one of the study’s co-authors, Sean McMahon, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, said, “Other researchers will be keen to replicate these findings using alternative measurement tools and techniques."
"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," he added.
The discovery is the result of a joint research project involving universities on both sides of the Atlantic, led by the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in conjunction with the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, the University of Glasgow, Brock University in Ontario, and the University of Western Ontario.
Aberdeen University’s Professor John Parnell, who directed the research, explained, "One of the most exciting developments in the exploration of Mars has been the suggestion of methane in the Martian atmosphere," adding, "Recent and forthcoming missions by NASA and the European Space Agency, respectively, are looking at this, however, 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."
The researchers intend to expand their research by analyzing further meteorites. What they might discover could have implications for future Mars rover missions and NASA’s long-term “Journey to Mars” project which has the ultimate aim of a manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
On possible avenues that future Mars rover experiments might explore, McMahon commented, "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."
The search for life on Mars remains a continuing mission....
More about Mars, Martian meteorites, Life on Mars, methane on Mars, search for extraterrestrial life
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