back to article It's a God-awful smell affair.... is there life on Mars? Rocks ruled out as source of mystery methane on Red Planet

Ever since methane was detected on Mars, boffins have been trying to find out how it got there. Research published in Scientific Reports on Monday has ruled out one source – rocks being eroded by wind. The presence of the hydrocarbon gas has excited the scientific community, since it can be produced via biological as well as …

  1. Justin Case
    Headmaster

    Tautology alert!

    >> “Using the data available, we estimated rates of erosion on the surface of Mars and how important it could be in releasing methane,”

    Much more impressive if they'd used the data unavailable.

    1. AndrueC Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Tautology alert!

      Maybe they will find E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. I wonder if the equipment they are using requires that they enter a PIN number?

      1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

        Re: Tautology alert!

        I do hope it's been PAT tasted.

        1. iron Silver badge

          Re: Tautology alert!

          Pat's tongue is the best for tasting.

          1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge
            Facepalm

            Re: Tautology alert!

            I think my keyboard may need testing.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So, he managed to keep out of the frame when building the 360º cameras, but now we've detected the Martian trudging along by his farts. Duh.

    :)

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Coat

    The plot thickens

    Looks like we're going to need to send more probes.

    1. AndrueC Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: The plot thickens

      Is this why alien visitors allegedly do that to humans?

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Re: The plot thickens

        The anal probes are to detect the source of the methane?

  4. Twanky
    Boffin

    NASA believes...

    ...that the source is a transient methane plume.

    That's a description not an explanation.

    It's like my doctor diagnosing 'polymyalgia' when I complained of multiple pains.

    1. Symon Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: NASA believes...

      Doctor :- You've got hypochondria.

      Patient :- Not that as well!

      1. GrumpenKraut Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: NASA believes...

        In severe cases of hypochondria doctors will prescribe placebo forte.

  5. Tom 7 Silver badge

    I think its probably more likely to be geological

    and the burps are when accumulated methane geysers past some underground water. That is assuming the 46 tonnes reported is the total release. There are many processes that could generate methane at depth and , while I'd squeal with delight to find life on Mars, Occam says rocks.

    1. MacroRodent Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: I think its probably more likely to be geological

      > Occam says rocks.

      That Occam character is a real killjoy!

      1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

        Re: I think its probably more likely to be geological

        Careful, he has a razor and he's not afraid to use it.

        1. phuzz Silver badge
          Trollface

          Re: I think its probably more likely to be geological

          So this is why the government is trying to crack down on knife crime! They're trying to stop us from using Occam's Razor! (Although Hanlon's Razor is more usefully applied to governments).

          1. Tom 7 Silver badge

            Re: I think its probably more likely to be geological

            He was particularly good in Father Ted ISTR.

            1. Tigra 07 Silver badge
              Pint

              Re: Tom 7

              Personally I think that would be an ecumenical matter.

    2. Benson's Cycle

      Re: I think its probably more likely to be geological

      It is interesting how we still rely on anthropocentric thinking.

      Bill Ockham has nothing to say on the subject. Because, if you were to have as much knowledge of the Earth as we do of Mars, based on actual exploration, you could have landed in an awful lot of places which would lead you to conclude that any methane came from rocks.

      But based on the evidence of our own planet, the "obvious" conclusion is that life seems to get everywhere. It's just that Aristotle was enormously influential, despite so many of his statements being so obviously wrong.

      1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

        Re: Where are the trees.

        Earth has been completely transformed by a few microorganisms. Then a few macro ones did so again, more so. Then one particular type did even more so!

        The moon, is clear as day "dead" to life. Mars? The same, by a fraction of a degree the other way also. Colder, less light, no radiation protection.

        Explorer for the learning, but don't pretend you might find something you know for certain is not there. A bit like promising the kids there is ice cream on a road trip, when you know you left it at home.

        1. MrReal Bronze badge

          Re: Where are the trees.

          There's no evidence that Mars was always dead, in fact the magnetic hoops look like remnants of a proper field from when it was younger.

          A full magnetic field around Mars would perform in the same way as earths, shield from charged radiation, prevent the atmosphere from being stripped away (atmosphere constantly appears from the rocks) which would shield the remaining radiation.

          So 1-2 billion years ago Mars could well have had a full atmosphere and no radiation, quite unlike the intensely hostile moon bathed in constant deadly radiation.

          Plant life would have been very interesting - as would the exact atmospheric mix. Less gravity but further from the sun could have had one vaguely similar to ours and I'd expect any life to be taller, more spindly and for ferns and fungi to do the best.

          1. Tom 7 Silver badge

            Re: Where are the trees.

            Mars lost its field 4.2 billion years ago. Given the volume of the habitable places on the planer and some statistics (given earth is the only data point) its highly unlikely life got started on Mars.

            1. MrReal Bronze badge

              Re: Where are the trees.

              The death of Mars 4.2 billion years ago is a guess - an 'extreme extrapolation' in fact.

              Given we can't even date the Sphinx it's a bit soon to be able to claim the date of something so far back in time most have no concept of it.

              The fact Mars has enough magnetism left today to maintain pockets of air is an indication that it died a LOT sooner than 4.2 billion years ago.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Where are the trees.

                Magnetism? Is it not also gravity?

                1. MrReal Bronze badge

                  Re: Where are the trees.

                  Gravity is very important in controlling a planet's composition of the atmosphere yes, but without a magnetic field the solar wind simply strips the gases away.

                  A planet's dynamics are from outgassing (new gas!) and solar wind removal. The CO2 on venus is there largely because it's heavy and the sun has stripped the lighter gases away. It's an interesting subject.

          2. TechnicalBen Silver badge

            Re: Where are the trees.

            "There's no evidence that Mars was always dead." There is no evidence that... well, there never was a red teapot orbiting the sun _at some point in time_.

            That's the thing. It's a negative proof, and one based on assumptions and dreams. Not hard data.

            It's a bit like saying, if I keep building car parks on the moon, eventually a car *will* turn up. Yes, carparks and cars are extremely highly correlated, but one causes/requires/invokes the other in one direction only, not the other.

          3. Grikath

            Re: Where are the trees.

            There is actually still no evidence either way....

            What evidence there is is that Mars lost its magnetic field early, if it ever had one strong enough to fend off solar wind, and that it had active volcanism and seas of liquid water. Basically, between the volcanism and the solar wind, it literally boiled itself dry...

            The big question is: How long was the intermediate period where Mars did tick the boxes we currently understand are needed for Life to appear? ( And please bear in mind that those boxes amount to a set of circumstances that are utterly lethal to us.) And did those circumstances last long enough for life to proliferate and leave a mark we can recognise?

            Remember.. early life on earth did not need light or oxygen. In fact, the latter was, and is, utterly lethal to even current anaerobic organisms running the same processes those early ancestors did. Early earth life consisted of chemotrophs living in a hot and acidic environment, exactly like the black smokers and other underwater volcanic vents nowadays on Earth. And their telltale deposits are the oldest fossils we have found.

            So did Mars have a period where there were oceans with volcanic vents/fissures? yes. Did it last long enough to let early/proto life appear? Probably, especially since we're finding out that life on Earth started way earlier than previously thought, and that that start in and of itself is ridiculously "simple".

            Will we ever find proof of this? If life started and lasted long enough, there should be some fossil telltale somewhere, if Mars' relentless erosion hasn't destroyed the evidence already. So good luck finding it.

            Would it be possible that there's still life on Mars? Only underground if there happens to be enough water deep-surface. Just as here on earth, stuff could have survived deep underground. Again.. good luck finding it.. Only an Armageddon-style drill setup can get that deep.

            So you can't say life never existed on Mars, since the conditions to let it appear certainly were there, and possibly long enough to leave a telltale mark. Have we found any of those marks? No, so there's no proof-positive either.

            1. MrReal Bronze badge

              Re: Where are the trees.

              "Early earth life consisted of chemotrophs living in a hot and acidic environment"

              It's a popular theory and of course may have been happening too, but I think Fred Hoyle was onto something with his theory of life swirling around the universe: panspermia.

              We may also have not all originated the same way - remember the 15% of RH-ve people have no known earth source.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: Where are the trees.

          "Earth has been completely transformed by a few microorganisms. Then a few macro ones did so again, more so. Then one particular type did even more so!"

          So, you're saying the Earth is The Old Lady and we humans are the Horse, Of Course?

  6. Simon Harris Silver badge

    "we know natural methane is odorless"

    That's a very human-centric way of putting things.

    Who knows how smelly it is to Martians' noses?

    1. DavCrav Silver badge

      Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

      Also, all methane is odorless, not just 'natural' methane. (As opposed to the methane that exists outside nature?)

      1. deadlockvictim Silver badge
        Trollface

        Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

        Natural methane exists in harmony with the world and is good for you.

        Artificial, or chemical methane, is, on the other hand, smelly and bad for you.

        1. sundog

          Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

          Why would it only be smelly if held in one particular hand or the other? Also, would you please elaborate which hand (left or right) is the one that causes it to be smelly? Or is it the holder's dominant hand? What if I'm ambidextrous? What if I only have one hand due to a horrible desk stapler incident, and now that is my dominant hand? Will I ever be able to hold methane without creating a stink, or am I just fscked? These are the questions that keep me up when I'm wanting to take a nap at work!

          1. BugabooSue
            Thumb Up

            Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

            "These are the questions that keep me up when I'm wanting to take a nap at work!"

            Now, I can't sleep either! Damn you!!!

            roft (rolling on floor twitching) ;)

          2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

            "Also, would you please elaborate which hand (left or right) is the one that causes it to be smelly?"

            Well, obviously that would be the sinister one!

            1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
              Joke

              Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

              It was Dexter who did it!

        2. Ima Ballsy
          Coat

          Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

          Ahhhh... So we're talking about the Burrito effect here then ?

        3. Tom 7 Silver badge

          Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

          Natural methane exists in harmony with the world and is good for you.??? Wait and see how this Arctic tundra meltdown goes.

          1. deadlockvictim Silver badge
            Trollface

            Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

            Nothing that some crystals can't solve. They protect me from all of the malicious electromagnetic rays from commercial aerials that are everywhere.

        4. katrinab Silver badge

          Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

          Ethyl Mercaptan is added to mains gas to make it smelly so that people can tell when there is a leak.

          1. Stork Silver badge

            Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

            I can usually smell when I am leaking methane, but that is due to the added hydrogen sulphide

            1. Benson's Cycle

              Re: "we know natural methane is odorless"

              I believe the main gas in human farts is hydrogen, not methane, and that is why lighting them can be very dangerous. Methane emerging from a cow's rear end is too concentrated to go bang easily and doesn't diffuse too fast. Hydrogen rapidly diffuses in air and the resulting mixtures can have a very fast flame front which rapidly burns back to the origin.

              Cows that have eaten the wrong stuff may produce hydrogen and there are tales of vets producing unexpected bangs.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    erosion of oil shales

    Someone should point out to these "scientists" that oil shales will only occur where there is a high density of organic life.

    An oil shale is a sedimentary rock containing a high percentage of hydrocarbons from dead organic material.

    If those oil shales were in a position to be subject to wind erosion - and therefore on the surface - then the debate about life on Mars would already be over.

    1. Thoguht Silver badge

      Re: erosion of oil shales

      I think the point was that for the methane concentrations registered, the surface rocks would need to be something like oil shales, which they clearly aren't, so wind erosion is not the source.

      But if Mars once had oceans with life in them, who's to say that there aren't organic residues such as oil shales deep underground?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: erosion of oil shales

        If Mars once had pixies, whos to say they did not fart?

        ;)

  8. Dreadwitch

    Fairly sure Bowie sang about small affairs.....

    1. deadlockvictim Silver badge

      Are you getting in the way of a good headline?

  9. MrReal Bronze badge

    Rock erosion

    I wonder if a similar weather erosion scenario caused the weathering of all the moon rocks and boulders. NASA photos show clear signs of rounded corners, differentially eroded sedimentary layers and of course most are clean of any dust, which all points to significant wind currents on the moon.

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      Re: Rock erosion

      Huh? There are no winds on the moon. There is no weathering of the rocks and boulders on the moon. What do you mean?

      The moon gets micro meteors, and occasionally ion charged (via the solar wind) suspension of dust.

      1. MrReal Bronze badge

        Re: Rock erosion

        Yes, lots of weathering.

        I spent a good while searching the NASA photos for a lunar rock with a sharp edge - didn't find one. All edges, on top or underneath are rounded off - clear signs of weathering.

        Apollo 16 and 17 have some great photos of this BTW. Astronauts even lent against them - no danger of a suit rip or a dust stain, even the photos of them collecting them for samples show lovely rounded edges.

        They even had geologist Schmitt examine the weathering patterns - Apollo 17 IIRC. NASA says the dust is sharp but their photos show the rocks are smooth - maybe there is a connection?

    2. sundog

      Re: Rock erosion and moon wind

      To the best of my knowledge, the only significant wind currents on the moon were circling 'round the astronauts in their suits. Seems the food caused some gastric (and olfactory) distress to the poor bastards.

      Meanwhile, you know there was 'that one guy' in Mission Control that couldn't keep from laughing hysterically every time one of the astronauts hotboxed themselves.

  10. Mark 85 Silver badge

    NASA photos show clear signs of rounded corners,

    So moon rocks are early iPhones?

    1. deadlockvictim Silver badge

      Rounded Corners

      Steve Jobs has been a fan of rounded corners for a long time.

      See Andy Hertzfeld'd excellent folklore.org:

      http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?story=Round_Rects_Are_Everywhere.txt

  11. HildyJ

    He who smelt it, dealt it

    Maybe it was just something Curiosity ate.

  12. batfink Bronze badge
    Mushroom

    Transient Methane Plumes

    Yes - we're all familiar with those.

    Usually I blame the dog.

  13. ocflyfish

    Sorry...

    It was burrito I ate at lunch.

  14. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

    Methane

    Sounds like there may be an announcement very soon. Could all that methane be leaking from remnant underground life in caves?

    Just how complex could life get assuming:

    1) hypersalinity

    2) weak but significant geothermal energy

    3) radioisotopic decay

    4) relatively low temperature, say 278.15K

    5) life started approximately the same time as Earth, say between 3 and 4GY ago.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019