Do We FINALLY Have Proof of Life on Mars?
Science requires time. Time to make new discoveries, and more time to figure out exactly what to make of new discoveries. So the when the latest headlines read something to the effect of “Has Life Been Found On Mars?”, they might seem easy to dismiss as just the latest in a long string of Martian discoveries which have not yet been validated. For folks who have been paying attention to NASA’s 4 decades of exploring the ‘Red Planet’, even they might be tempted to lump it in with the DOZENS of headlines which have all sounded the same for the past 10 years. We all look forward to the day where we wake up and there is a press conference in progress with the NASA scientists explaining the definitive proof of some form of life existing, or had existed, on Mars.
With all that said, this new round of headlines concerning Mars is worth some closer attention. One of the first reports came from The Independent whose headline reads: There just might be life on Mars….NASA Curiosity rover picks up mysterious methane ‘burps’ that could possibly be coming from alien organisms. In fact, Curiosity Tweeted the news: Certified organics! I detected organics for the 1st time on the surface of Mars. But the real “main event” took place at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, California when NASA scientists announced that an instrument (The Tunable Laser Spectrometer or TLS) on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover has detected varying levels of methane on Mars.
That there is methane on Mars is not a new discovery, as scientists have been gathering data on Mars’ methane dating back to the Viking landers in the 1970’s. After all, there are natural geological processes which can release methane in to an atmosphere. But in 2004, The European Space Agency claimed an instrument on their Mars Express Orbiter was detecting variability in Mars’ methane levels. This was a rather stunning announcement. As Nicholas Heavens at The Planetary Society instructs us:
“Methane in Mars’s atmosphere should be very slowly converted to CO2 by processes related to the interaction of methane and other species with sunlight, such that a high proportion of methane should become CO2 in roughly 300 years. The atmosphere of Mars mixes much faster than 300 years, so methane should be evenly distributed in Mars’s atmosphere.”
So now we have the announcement that the TLS, which is a very precise tool for measuring methane content of the Martian atmosphere at ground level, has measured different levels of methane compared to some of its prior readings, confirming the variability of methane levels in Mars’ atmosphere. Variability in the methane is one of the prerequisites for concluding that organic life exists on Mars. It is not the only requirement, but it does fill in one piece of the “Life on Mars” puzzle quite nicely.
So is NASA getting ready for a big press conference to declare there is definitely life on Mars? Negative. Let’s face it, this would be one of the most important scientific discoveries of human history. NASA or the ESA or any other space agency can not get this wrong. It is simply too important, there is no immediate urgency behind this discovery, so there is no reason to rush in to any premature or highly embarrassing announcements. Science requires time to make discoveries, and time to understand what has been discovered. Mars isn’t going away, and if organisms are responsible for the methane variations, they are not going away either.