Since the discovery of methane on Mars in 2013, researchers have hypothesized about its origins, postulating that it may be the result of life existing on the red planet. Recently, a research team from Newcastle University in the UK eliminated one of the sources that could explain the presence of methane gas in the Martian atmosphere
Study co-author Jon Telling said that one potential source of methane previously ignored was wind erosion, which could be releasing gases trapped within rocks. Winds on Mars can drive much higher rates of sand movement than previously thought, he added.
‘Using the data available, we estimated rates of erosion on the surface of Mars and how important it could be in releasing methane,’ Telling explained. ‘And taking all that into account we found it was very unlikely to be the source.’
Researchers compared new and existing data of the Martian atmosphere to determine whether different rock types contained significant methane amounts. For the wind erosion theory to stand, the methane content on rocks would have had to have been similar to shales on Earth that contain large amounts of hydrocarbon. And that is extremely unlikely, said the research team.
Still, the possibility of Mars harboring life still exists.
‘The questions are — where is this methane coming from, and is the source biological? That's a massive question and to get to the answer we need to rule out lots of other factors first,’ Telling said.
The new study, he said, is a small step toward answering the big question: ‘What's important about this is that it strengthens the argument that the methane must be coming from a different source. Whether or not that's biological, we still don't know.’
Lead study author Emmal Safi summarized: ‘Ultimately, what we're trying to discover is if there's the possibility of life existing on planets other than our own, either living now or maybe life in the past that is now preserved as fossils or chemical signatures.’
The study, which appeared in Scientific Reports, was funded by the UK Space agency.