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<b>Astral Arcs</b><br>Star trails over the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, one of Mauna Kea's thirteen observatories. <br><i>Photo by Richard J. Wainscoat / Photo Resource Hawaii</i>
Vol. 13, no. 3
June/July 2010

 

View from the Top (Page 6)

 

 

Is There Anybody Out There? Methane on Mars

 

  
Is there life beyond Earth? The methane
found recently on mars (illustrated by this
graph) suggests there might be.
 Illustration: Michael Mumma, NASA/WMKO
With all of those planets and with all of that potential for water, the biggest question in astronomy can’t be far behind: Is there life out there? A recent discovery on Mars pushes that question too. In 2003, astronomers using the NASA Infrared telescope on Mauna Kea found methane on the red planet. “Amazing,” says Taft Armandroff, the director of the Keck telescopes. “I was blown away by this.” To understand why, you have to understand something of methane itself. It’s a transient compound that wouldn’t last longer than three hundred to six hundred years in Mars’ atmosphere; to be present, it has to be regenerated. And to regenerate methane, you need either a biological or geological process. In other words, you need some form of life or something akin to Mauna Kea itself. A Vulcan or a volcano, take your pick.

 

Astronomers took follow-up readings in 2006, found far less methane and concluded that three years earlier they’d stumbled on a burst in methane production. They are now doing further studies using the ultra-exact equipment at Keck. (Kudritzki points out that such a pattern of detection is classic on the mountain: Astronomers often make initial discoveries using the smaller telescopes, then refine their findings with the larger ones.) They’re also using the telescope to look for other molecules that might offer clues about the methane’s origins. Keck has already, says Armandroff, localized methane to certain sites on Mars—sites that are rich with water-bearing minerals—and will be able to pinpoint it further with adaptive optics. “If we can really localize it, then we can send spacecraft to probe the soil,” says Armandroff. “It’s so exciting that there could be some other life on Mars, even if it’s extraordinarily simple microbial life. That would, of course, be a first.”

 


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