Mars & Methane

Current data documenting the absence of Martian methane does not constitute an absence of microbes on Mars. It seems trivial to say, but the finding adds meaning to our present existence. So, it should go without saying—the birth of our solar system should give us pause to wonder from whence we came, the lack of methane is the true reason for us to know the solar system as it truly might be. Around the time of the Viking landers, the majority of space enthusiasts had given up finding any type of life on the surface of Mars; I suppose we felt teased into wishing for ET. However in 1997, I had caught a glimpse into its possibility upon reading the first chapter of a text by McLafferty and Turicek (Interpretation of Mass Spectra); it was in Chapter 1 that the authors presented a trace of data from Mars of Viking 1 in 1976. As plain as the nose on one’s face was hard data for the presence of methane on Mars—although the wet chemistry module of experimentation failed to conclusively find organics. The Mass Spectra of the atmosphere produced evidence for a methane signature and (The authors as well came to that conclusion while speaking of the trace.) to my doubting eyes—was the hard evidence. (page 5 ) of the abovementioned text reveals the telltale peaks at 16 and 12 for methane and carbon) It whet my appetite for more—and then came the Alan Hills meteorite (ALH84001) and the evidence for past, Martian water.

The discipline of astrobiology had found a reason to exist. No longer was the search for ET a fool’s errand—but real, organic chemistry was taking form and shape. While the casual observer may not recognize NASA’s findings as reasons to spend further tax dollars, it was a public relations winner in every sense of the word.

So it is truly safe to say that, astrobiology and its allied sciences are an economic engine—and within past 15-to-20 years, the public flocks to the nearest IMAX theatre to watch footage of the ISS or one of the Mars’ rovers. There are numerous books, magazine articles, and not-to-mention research groups throughout the world which are devoted to the study of the biology and chemistry of early Earth (and the early solar system as well). And, one major advantage which I failed to mention was the “off-shoot research activity” that astrobiology has spawned. Real and practical research has gained a foothold in the form of medical research to understand the how cancer has co-evolved alongside the human condition. The study of astrobiology is a study of us—in a manner that is both unique and unites us as a species.

What the harshest critics fail to notice is that all of this activity is good for the economy and good for our progeny (our children’s children—if you will). Technology advances and our children dream the new dreams of the future.


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