Ask Matteo Borri: What Do The Methane Patterns On Mars Tell Us About The Possibility of Life There?

By Lisa Rein

The Curiosity Rover has found that the levels of the complex molecule “Methane” on Mars vary with its seasons, just like here on Earth. Credit: NASA/GSFC

You can see many of Matteo Borri’s creations at Robots Everywhere, LLC. He is a member of the Swartz-Manning VR Destination‘s Advisory Board. (The Swartz-Manning is an Aaron Swartz Day Production.)

NASA made an announcement recently about its latest finding about Mars.  Specifically, they found Methane, which clearly suggests that life is either there now, or was there, a long time ago.

Lisa Rein: Matteo, would you please summarize the implications of the Methane material NASA found on Mars?

Matteo Borri: Well, we already knew that there is Methane on Mars. What is interesting and new is that we have now figured out it comes out of the ground seasonally.

Methane on Earth mostly comes about by biological means, from bacteria, but surprisingly enough, the large share of it that comes out of cows’ hindquarters is enough to muddle the data, so we are not sure about it.

However, there is also a seasonal component to how much of it is released in the atmosphere. We now know that Methane is released during the summer and fall. On earth, Methane is also released seasonally. Typically during the end of summer.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

LR: So is part of the excitement that Mars is exhibiting more Earth-like characteristics?

MB: Yes. It’s one more point in common between the two planets.

LR: When they say they’ve found “organic compounds” one of the complex molecules required for life,” what does that mean?

MB: It means that there are complex molecules. “Organic compound” simply means a non-simple molecule containing Carbon. Historically, it was thought that only life-related processes could make those, but we’ve known that this is not the case for more than a century now. (However, the name stuck, which can cause confusion.)

LR: The NASA article said “It should take methane several hundred years to break apart in the presence of UV light, but that’s not what happened on Mars. The surge in methane seems to fade as quickly as it appears, indicating there’s not just a variable source, but a methane sink as well.” What the heck is a “methane sink?”

MB: A methane sink is a type of rock that absorbs methane when the condition for it. Carbonate rocks will fit the bill; so will Granite.

LR: What’s the connection between the Tryptophan that we just learned about in the last article, and these “complex molecules required for life” such as Methane?

MB: If we find Tryptophan, we know that we’ve got a life sign. Methane is actually a simple molecule, five atoms total, and can come about in an inorganic way.

Finding Methane in some parts of Mars, and not others, raises many interesting questions about the Methane’s origin. Might we have stumbled upon ancient Methane deposits from hardy bacteria that are no longer living? Or something else entirely?

There isn’t enough data right now. We have to go back and look, but this recent discovery gives us a place to start looking. It’s never a bad thing if you have even a hint of where to land your rover.

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