The existence of life beyond Earth is a prospect so profound that few others could be more deserving of Carl Sagan’s caution that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. What else competes? Proof of God? Proof that we are, as an Oxford professor has speculated, hapless characters in a computer simulation? The announcement this week that Nasa’s Curiosity rover had detected unusual bursts of methane on Mars prompted a flurry of speculation that the gas came from alien life – that microbes on Mars could be churning out the gas, much as happens on Earth. But as evidence for life goes, methane is not extraordinary. More than 90% of methane in the air on Earth comes from living organisms. That is because Earth is rich with life. On Mars, the amount of methane floating around is measly: about one part per billion, with bursts reaching 10 times that amount. The entire quota could come from geological processes inside the planet and UV rays breaking down chemicals that arrive on meteorites. And so the hunt is on to learn more. Here Nasa faces a problem. The Curiosity rover was not designed to spot signatures of past or present life. Rather, its mission… Read full this story
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