The NASA Curiosity Rover team calls the findings “incredibly exciting”. Yesterday, they reported finding organic compounds in Martian soil, as well dramatic fluctuations in atmospheric methane – “the first in-situ detection of methane on Mars”. Given that methane breaks down quickly in the Martian atmosphere, these fluctuations suggest that a dynamic methanogenic system of some sort is at work.
According to NASA scientists, there are two possible sources of the methane surges on Mars: 1) Chemical reactions between the mineral serpentine and liquid water; 2) Life.
When I shared this news with my 13 year-old son, his eyes grew large with the implications. When I shared the news with my wife, her reaction was to shrug.
What’s your reaction – and why do you have this reaction?
In the past, I have questioned the value of human space travel to Mars. Now, I question how yesterday’s news of fluctuating methane on Mars should impact plans for human exploration of the planet. Should the news of methane, possibly from Martian life, encourage us to invest more in human missions to Mars, or delay those plans?
On the one hand, humans on Mars could conduct a quicker, more adaptable search than robot rovers could. On the other hand, the introduction of life from Earth to Mars could forever contaminate the planet, making study of Martian biology much more difficult.
I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts on this subject. For those who want to find out more, the video below is of yesterday’s press conference on the research, nearly an hour long.