The results are certainly tantalising. From time to time, Mars belches out clouds of methane, a gas that on Earth comes largely from life. When animals and other organisms eat food they produce methane as a waste gas. From one end or the other, that gas ultimately finds its way out into the air. Nasa’s announcement on Tuesday that its Curiosity rover had detected wafts of methane in the Martian air was met with immediate speculation that life might be the source. It might. Communities of microbes could be living under the Martian surface and churning out the gas. Perhaps the corpses of long-extinct bugs are being heated in the Martian interior and vaporised into methane. But any number of other processes that involve nothing as spectacular as life can and do make methane too. The problem is that detecting methane alone is never enough to answer the question of whether or not we are alone. “You need to know a lot more about what’s going on right at the source,” said Michael New, an astrobiologist at Nasa’s headquarters in Washington DC. “You need to know the context. It’s very hard to look at methane alone and say it came… Read full this story
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