Methane on Mars: Or … “Back to the Future …?”
This is HUGE ….
In the wake of these startling announcements, wide-ranging discussions have erupted across the Internet concerning the source of this new methane. Probably the most authoritative and fact-based of these is currently taking place on a “weblog” known by the whimsical title, “Mainly Martian.” Another cogent analysis is voiced by “the Mars Society’s” Bob Zubrin. As one would expect, viewpoints on this surprising development differ vociferously – mainly, as to whether the new methane measurements are “geological” or “biological.”
Fortunately, the scientific test for “biological methane” in this case is elemental: careful measurement of the ratio of carbon isotopes bound with hydrogen, in the methane molecules detected in the Martian atmosphere.
For a variety of reasons, biologically “fixed” carbon has a preference for the lighter isotope – Carbon 12 – over the heavier version also found in nature, Carbon 13. Methane produced by non-biologically processes – such as volcanically heated rocks acting on water vapor and carbon dioxide – does not show any such preferences for Carbon 12. Thus, measurement of this key isotopic ratio in the Mars methane will compelling establish its true origin. Pilinger’s Beagle 2 carried precisely the instrumentation needed to determine the carbon isotope ratios of any methane in the Martian atmosphere. Unfortunately (coincidentally?)—
Beagle 2 was lost on entry … and other, similar spacecraft observations are probably years away ….
Curiously, in all of these on-going discussions, none of the participants seem to have noticed Pillinger’s central point (above) -- that in the end (via this one isotopic test), essentially ALL methane released into Earth’s atmosphere is biological … the only difference being “how old were the microbes who originally made it!?” But, since this is true on Earth, one has to now immediately consider the serious scientific possibility – because of the three independent confirmations of methane in Mars current atmosphere -- that Mars also had to have had “an extensive, previous biosphere” – and the methane we are seeing is the natural “seepage” from long-buried deposits of natural oil and gas! A paper, delivered over four years ago at the 2000 SPIE (International Society for Optical Engineering) Conference in San Diego, from researchers at NASA-Ames, discussed precisely such a theoretical possibility – long before the current methane was announced!
For our own increasingly supported tidal model, these latest methane findings are even further evidence of a very different Mars than the one being currently discussed in any other forum ….
To whit: one telling line in Krasnopolsky’s official methane announcement:
How would they know!?
This view is obviously based on the strange assumptions that a) the Viking results -- at two fixed pinpoints on the Martian surface -- could in any way apply to potentially vast, subterranean reserves of buried organics, all over the rest of Mars; and b) that current geological reconstructions of Martian history (which currently exclude such buried reservoirs) are even close to 100% accurate.
Neither can be scientifically correct.
If the current methane is not being produced by living organisms, but is “merely” being released into the Martian atmosphere via some low level geological process (volcanism, or earthquake activity – although Mars Odyssey and its IR THEMIS instrument have found NO evidence of current volcanism, anywhere on Mars), then this simple fact is presenting us with a literally revolutionary window on Mars’ ancient history. Because Colin Pillinger is correct: most “geologically released methane” here is ultimately derived from biological sources long-since buried. Because of this well-established fact, these startling new Martian observations have revealed an extraordinary window on an ancient Mars radically different from the Mars we see today -- which in all likelihood had an extensive biological past!
Therefore, with all due respect to Dr. Krasnopolsky and his team (which, curiously, includes “Toby Owen” – the NASA guy who in 1976 originally found “the Face on Mars”), the methane now detected on Mars could well be long-overdue confirmation of a whole new, revolutionary Martian history ….
On the other hand, if the methane now being measured is liberated by current life on Mars, then the relatively small amount observed (something on the order of ~90,000 tons in the entire Martian atmosphere), and the calculated rate of its replacement (as little as 300 tons per year to maintain what is observed), definitely means a “less than thriving present Martian biosphere.” Even this observation fits perfectly into our own on-going, “catastrophic Mars” scenario:
The accumulating evidence that Mars -- sometime in the last ~100 millions years -- suffered an almost incomprehensible and global cataclysm, leaving the Mars we know completely ravaged, its Southern Hemisphere cratered “wall-to-wall” … and 99.99% of its former biosphere obliterated ….
Because: it’s not an “either/or ….
Both scenarios could well be true.
Methane could be produced, today -- by some still surviving, still struggling form of hardy Martian life form -- amazing organisms, adapted to the current “devastated Mars” …
Augmented … by methane from yesterday’s “incomparably richer Mars” … still leaking from an unimaginable planetary tomb.
But barring those critical carbon isotope determinations … how can we estimate (at this point) the more probably scenario?
Recent spacecraft observations – particularly those made by the European’s first Mars mission, Mars Express – may already have provided vital clues ….
A few weeks ago, the German HRSC camera aboard Mars Express began returning striking, full-color views of major regions of the planet. One of the areas published on January 23, 2004 was Gusev Crater – the regional Mars location of one of the two JPL rover missions currently exploring Gusev’s ancient floor (dark area, right side of the ellipse, below).
As noted earlier, Gusev -- the site of the current Spirit rover mission -- just “happens” to be the site of one of our two former tidal oceans ... as well as a region of currently enhanced ground ice along the Mars’ equator, as determined by the Mars Odyssey GRS instrument.
What made the Mars Express Gusev image so immediately interesting was the fact that those “dark markings” – the intricate features seen streaking portions of the floor of the 90-mile-wide Crater in the black and white imaging (above) -- in color (below) … were revealed by Mars Express to be various amazing shades of green ….
Reaction to this startling European Gusev image was immediate … and highly controversial:
The blatant “green” indicated to many the distinct possibility of current plant life on the floor of Gusev. Linda Moulton Howe managed something of a scoop, when – shortly after the above Mars Express image was published – she managed to get an on-the-record statement from Michael McKay, Flight Operations Director of the European Space Agency:
”Remarkably -- right after this extremely leading, extremely provocative statement -- the color of the official Mars Express Gusev image on the German Space Agency web site (below, lower right) was curiously “recalibrated.”
While, simultaneously, the caption on the official ESA site carrying the Gusev “green” image was also altered (below) – with a key line added: “Note the green coloring is an effect of image processing ….”
Inexplicably … the image on the site (as you can see) … remained UNCHANGED!
Which, given that a “recalibrated” version of this same image had just replaced the original on the official German web site, is completely baffling .… Unless—
It was a -- “Don’t’ pay attention to the caption … keep focus on the image …” -- kind of thing.
Our reaction was a bit more direct.
Enterprise published, as a continuation of our previous discussion of NASA’s apparent “inability” to “get the colors right,” a side-by-side comparison of the provocative old/new Mars Express image … and … a “colorized” comparison of the same Gusev region. The latter was unofficially created from official NASA THEMIS data and colorized (from the same data) by space artist and NASA contractor, Don Davis (below).
It was certainly obvious from this particular comparison, that something indeed was/is very wrong with NASA’s Martian colors! As if one needed such comparisons; as can be seen on JPL’s own web site (below) three different color versions of the same Pathfinder surface panorama, attest to “something” going on behind the scenes in NASA ... regarding Mars’ true colors.
Now, even after the officially attempted “correction” on the German web site, on enlargement of the revised Mars Express image (below, right), the wispy streaks were still green – albeit a darker “bluish-green” (with maybe some purple thrown in)! What was truly fascinating was that, strikingly obvious in the new color image, the streaks” emanated directly from the large and small dark crater floors. This visible preference for the wisps to “somehow” want to “interact” with craters was not easily explainable in terms of the prevailing NASA model:
Which still maintains that the sinuous dark features on Gusev’s floor are simply random wind streaks … caused by “lighter Martian dust” being removed by local dust devils from the darker, underlying surface.
In fact, the imaging comparison (above) revealed the opposite:
That the Martian winds are preferentially removing something “dark” from the floors of the “even darker” craters … and depositing it on the plains between these craters -- as the “wispy, blue-green, purple streaks” so evident in the “recalibrated” German image (above, right).
This is where two completely independent Mars observations suddenly came together.
When Spirit landed on the floor of Gusev on January 3 rd, one of its first high-resolution surface color images (below, processed by Keith Laney) showed a mysterious “patch of something” lying a few feet from the lander. The nickname the rover Science Team eventually gave this curious surface feature was “the Magic Carpet.” Even Stephen Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Science Team, described it as--
Notwithstanding Steven Squyres’ public fascination with this remarkable “soil anomaly” – remember, the head of the rover Science Team -- when Spirit descended from its lander a few days later, instead of investigating the “Magic Carpet” close-up with its unique array of instruments, the rover was instead commanded to drive as fast as possible several hundred feet away … to “Bonneville Crater.”
The mystery of the Magic Carpet literally left behind … never to be solved.
But … what if they’re connected?
What if … Mars Express’ new color image of the mysterious “dark streaks” covering sections of the floor of Gusev Crater is somehow “connected” to Spirit’s equally provocative observations on that Crater floor … of the mysterious “Magic Carpet” area. Suppose, that the Spirit images of a “mud-like surface feature” were exactly that – images of Martian mud!? Suppose, that a highly concentrated brine solution lies just under the surface rocks and dust … beneath major sections of this ancient Crater floor!?
After all, this was supposed to be an “ancient crater lake” at one time, wasn’t it?
Then, suppose that, since it was summer at the Gusev site when Spirit landed, this subsurface brine solution had once again seasonally melted … (surface Martian temperatures can be as high as 70 degrees F.) -- creating a layer of literal mud just beneath the surface rocks and dust!
Spirit lands … the airbags drag across this partially wet, very sticky surface, and -- viola! -- Spirit captures the first image of a genuine “mud puddle” on the planet Mars!
So, what has this to do with the “greenish” color and sinuous nature of the streaks -- and their obvious preference for craters …?
If the ”Magic Carpet” was indeed caused by a briny “water table” lying beneath the ancient, dry lake Gusev surface, then every crater in the area – having punched through this surface crust to varying depths – should extend well below this dry and dusty surface … well down into the “brine layer!” On Earth, such a situation would be tailor made for all varieties of simple (and even complex) plant life to begin to grow – particularly, certain kinds of algae. Some species of terrestrial algae are extremely adapted to highly saline conditions (below), and often reproduce by creating spores, which are then redistributed by local winds, forming other colonies.
At Gusev, if the craters in the area were indeed harboring conditions conducive to some special algae growth – primarily, by extending below the local water table -- then one could easily speculate that as the algae mats within some craters grow in the Martian spring and summer, and ultimately reproduce, their spores are carried by the winds out of the craters ... to form the long, sinuous streaks across the intercrater surfaces observed from orbit!
The “streaks,” then, would simply be more colonies of algae from the craters … spread by algae spores surviving for a time between the crater floors ….
However, deprived of crucial quantities of water and essential nutrients (which, in this scenario, would be concentrated on those crater floors), the migrating algae colonies between the craters quickly die … and decompose. Through this process, they would inevitably release some of their bound organics – the hydrogen, carbon, etc. -- back into the atmosphere … to be seen as significant quantities of methane gas (below)--
The fact that salty water would be lying below the current Gusev crater floor, and is apparently still migrating upward toward the surface through evaporation, should not be too surprising; not only does this fit perfectly with our scenario – that, “only” 65 million years ago this was once the site of one of Mars two major planetary oceans – but the immediate soil analysis conducted by the Spirit rover when it descended from the lander found anomalously high concentrations of sulfur (S),sodium (Na) and chlorine(Cl) (x-ray spectra below) … all well known evaporite deposits of former salty oceans.
Which brings us back to the curious anticipation of all this by George Pimental … in 1969.
According to a new report, “ 1969 Mariner 7 IRS: Data Set Recovery and Calibration” ( Laurel E. Kirkland, Kenneth C. Herr, Paul B. Forney, and Donald K. Stone):
Unfortunately, at this writing, the only portion of the ‘69 IRS Mars’ data fully recovered and recalibrated is the long-wave section. The short wave data --including those highly controversial lines originally attributed to methane and ammonia -- remain unreexamined ….
What’s remarkable about this story is that, with this crucial calibration data mysteriously missing for over 30 years, no meaningful outside analysis was ever carried out on Pimental’s original Mars spectra, by any other agency or scientist. Thus, what it was that Mariner 7 really saw as it crossed the “dark collar” of the southern Martian pole – especially in light of the three independent teams’ recent, startling “rediscovery” of methane in that atmosphere – remains a 30-year-old mystery ….
Two important additional developments that may have bearing on this mystery have come in recent years. Mars Surveyor has returned striking images since 1997, not only thought by some to represent seasonal growth and decay of large colonies of living microorganisms near the south pole (below, top), other MGS images have been interpreted as revealing even more astonishing biological forms (especially in the view of certain observers, such as Arthur C. Clarke) – entire fields of trees… or bushes … near the southern pole (below, bottom).
Significantly, when Mariner 7 flew by Mars on August 4, 1969, it was the beginning of Martian Spring in the southern hemisphere … precisely when these mysterious dark “spots” are first seen to form around the polar cap …. Is it unreasonable, if these are real microbial colonies, to speculate that they would be giving off significant methane and ammonia during the Mariner ’69 flyby …?
Looking again at the IRS Mars spectrum in comparison with an actual methane calibration spectra (below), one is left to wonder – regardless of his later “recantation,” and curiously “missing” laboratory data to support his reversed views -- if the real “methane on Mars” story didn’t in fact begin with George Pimental … over 30 years ago.
In fact, the complicated story of “hydrocarbon molecules on Mars” – and thus, indirect confirmation of current Martian life forms -- began much earlier ….
In 1956, an astronomer, pioneering infrared studies of solar system objects, William H. Sinton, carried out perhaps the earliest IR Martian survey. Sinton published a preliminary finding of “three absorption bands … likely due to C-H bonds … concentrated over the major dark markings of the planet.” These hydrocarbon bonds he attributed to chlorophyll – the major photo reactive molecule in planet life. Along with “chlorophyll,” Sinton also recorded a suspicious feature near 3.3 microns (below), indicative of … methane.
Later, Sinton (like Pimental years later) would recant his own Martian observations. But, curiously, despite constantly improving technology, there was never any follow up ….