Spiral Notebook
No Methane! No Life? Not Necessarily . . .
by Elizabeth Rusch
November 2, 2013
No Methane! No Life? Not Necessarily . . .

By now you many have heard that the Curiosity rover has detected no traces of methane on Mars. Methane is of great interest to scientists (and us all!) because methane could be sign that there is has recently been microbial life on Mars.

But does no methane mean that for sure there is no life on Mars? Not necessarily. There exist other kinds of living microbes that do not make methane.

“This important result will help direct our efforts to examine the possibility of life on Mars,” said NASA scientist Michael Meyer. “It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism. As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don’t generate methane.”

Also, just because there is little trace of methane now, doesn’t mean that there never was. There may have been methane-producing microbes back in Mars’ wetter and warmer past, billions of years ago.

So a finding of no methane, though it may seem disappointing, is important. It means that scientists can rule out the existence of recent methane-producing microbes, freeing them to look for other signs of life in the past and in the present. So the search continues…


Elizabeth Rusch

Author of The Mighty Mars Rovers

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