Life On Mars? Scientists Say They’re Getting Closer To Solving The Mystery

There's methane on Mars, and scientists want to know if it's organic in nature.

scientists are one step closer to finding life on mars
Vadim Sadovski / Shutterstock

There's methane on Mars, and scientists want to know if it's organic in nature.

Is there life on Mars? Maybe, or maybe not – but scientists are about to get one step closer to getting an answer, The Guardian is reporting.

The question of whether or not there is, or ever was, life on Mars has been the subject of speculation for centuries if not millennia. But hyperbolic science fiction movies of the 1950s aside, the general consensus has been that Mars just isn’t hospitable to life. At least, not in its current state. Mars’ atmosphere – one percent as thick as the Earth’s, and composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide – is too thin, and too short on oxygen to support life.

However, life continues to turn up in surprising places. What’s more, probes that have been sent up there recently have detected the presence of methane in recent years. That’s big: on Earth, methane is generally produced by decaying organisms. That means that the methane that’s been turning up on Martian spacecraft may very well be biological in origin, indicating that there may very well be (or have been) life up there.

Or maybe not. Methane can also be produced through geological processes and that’s what scientists hope to find out in the coming months – whether that methane is biological or geological in origin.

That’s what the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter hopes to find out.

The craft has been orbiting around Mars for around a year now, taking measurements, sending back stunning photos of the Martian surface, and otherwise providing terrestrial scientists with a wealth of data. Now, scientists are planning to narrow down the craft’s experiments even further, testing for the presence of other gases that will determine the origin of the methane.

Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency, breaks it down.

“If we find traces of methane that are mixed with more complex organic molecules, it will be a strong sign that methane on Mars has a biological source and that it is being produced – or was once produced – by living organisms.”

If the spacecraft finds more mundane gases – such as sulfur dioxide – mixed in with the methane, then that means it’s occurring via geological processes, not biological ones.

At this point, it bears noting that, short of a spacecraft digging up soil samples, bringing them home, and those soil samples showing conclusive signs of life, scientists won’t be able to conclusively say that there is, or ever was, life on Mars. And in fact, plans for just such a mission were announced this week, as The Telegraph reports.

However, that mission is years off, and the ExoMars Orbiter is already there. So for the short term, scientists will have to rely on data from that craft to determine if there is, or was, life on Mars.

Scientists hope to have enough data to start making conclusions within the next couple of months.