Researchers have found traces of methane in Martian meteorites, a discovery that suggests the presence of a warm, wet and chemically reactive environment on the red planet where life could thrive.
The researchers examined samples from six meteorites of volcanic rock that originated on Mars. The meteorites contain gases in the same proportion and with the same isotopic composition as the Martian atmosphere.
All six samples also contained methane, which was measured by crushing the rocks and running the emerging gas through a mass spectrometer. The team also examined two non-Martian meteorites, which contained lesser amounts of methane.
The discovery hints at the possibility that methane could be used as a food source by rudimentary forms of life beneath the Martian surface. On Earth, microbes do this in a range of environments.
“Other researchers will be keen to replicate these findings using alternative measurement tools and techniques,” said co-author Sean McMahon, a Yale University post-doctoral associate in the Department of Geology and Geophysics.
“Our findings will likely be used by astro-biologists in models and experiments aimed at understanding whether life
could survive below the surface of Mars today,” McMahon said.
“One of the most exciting developments in the exploration of Mars has been the suggestion of methane in the Martian atmosphere,” said University of Aberdeen professor John Parnell, who directed the research.
“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,” Parnell said.
McMahon noted that the team’s approach 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,” McMahon said.