Are there any indications of life on Mars
New evidence of life on Mars
The ESA Mars Express probe has found new evidence of biological life forms, water on the planet's surface and still active volcanoes at the North Pole of the Red Planet.
Europe's high-tech Mars Express probe has been keeping researchers in suspense for more than a year with surprises. The latest findings enliven the age-old controversy over life on the Red Planet.
The Italian chief scientist Vittorio Formisano from the Instituto Fisica Spazio Interplanetario in Rome, responsible for the experiment with the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS), made headlines in September 2004 when he detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. A discovery that has now been confirmed by other researchers and is considered undisputed. Methane is known on earth as a foul smelling putrefactive gas that is produced, among other things, by bacterial decomposition.
The Italian researcher saw primitive life forms as the most likely cause for the presence of this trace gas. It is known that methane and formaldehyde can be linked to the formation of more complex organic molecules and are therefore considered indicators of possible biological forms of life. To Formisano's chagrin, the scientific world does not share his conclusion, as other possible origins, such as volcanism, meteorite or comet impacts, etc., cannot be ruled out.
Bacteria as a chain of evidence
In February 2005, Formisano made people sit up and take notice with another sensation, having now discovered formaldehyde with the spectrometer. According to him, formaldehyde, a decomposition product of methane, would in the Martian atmosphere in a “Ten to twenty times higher concentration than methane" occurrence. While methane has a lifespan of 300 to 600 years, according to the Italian researcher, formaldehyde can only stay in the Martian atmosphere for a maximum of 7.5 hours. As a result, this trace gas has to be continuously reproduced. This in turn requires a continuous supply of methane.
According to Formisano's projections, 2.5 million tons of methane would have to be newly formed on Mars every year. Of this, just 100,000 tons are due to volcanism or meteorite impacts. The difference can only be provided by methane-producing bacteria. His conclusion is supported by the extremely uneven distribution of the gas. He found the highest methane concentrations where the greatest amounts of water vapor were measured. So exactly in those regions where Formisano suspects methane-producing bacteria in the Martian soil.
Researchers who simulated the Martian conditions in their laboratory confirmed that the oxidation of methane produces formaldehyde and decomposes within 7.5 hours. The key question is: Who or what started the oxidation process?
Mars volcanoes still active
Critics urge caution. NASA geologists point out that the internal geology of Mars is still largely unknown to be able to make such statements. The "father" of the German Mars stereo camera, the planetary researcher Gerhard Neukum, considers non-biological sources such as volcanism to be more likely: "Our latest findings show that, contrary to what has long been assumed, Mars was volcanically active until the very recent past and may still be today."
This was also shown by ESA's first Mars Express science conference, which took place from February 21st to 25th at the European Space Research and Technology Center ESTEC in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. There new photos of impressive quality were shown. They show how volcanism, wind and weather, water and ice have shaped the surface of Mars until recently.
The research team around Neukum found evidence of glaciers that are still active today. Neukum also discovered an extremely young volcanic area at the North Pole with up to 600 meters high "baby volcanoes", the "most likely" are still active today. This is a real sensation, as it was previously assumed that the volcanoes had been extinct for at least 100 million years.
North Sea at the Mars equator
A central theme of today's Mars research is the search for water, its role in the formation of the planet's surface and as a prerequisite for the creation of life. We already knew that there was water in the polar regions, in the Martian soil and in the atmosphere. It was also known that the Red Planet experienced drastic climatic changes over billions of years - from an earlier, warm climate with a dense atmosphere and gigantic amounts of liquid water on the surface to the current state with an extremely thinned atmosphere and a global ice desert. In view of the low pressure conditions, it was clear to every scientist that water will no longer be found on the surface of Mars today.
The world of researchers is all the more amazed that it has to put this doctrine aside. The British geologist John Murray from the Open University in Milton Keynes presented images from the German high-resolution stereo camera HRSC at the conference in Noordwijk on February 21. They show a mysterious area of pack ice with an area of around 800 by 900 kilometers. The area, which is comparable in size to the North Sea, is located near the Mars equator in the Elysium Plain. The images are strikingly similar to terrestrial images of Antarctic ice floes. These images corroborate the suspicion that there is a lake there. Murray and his colleagues estimate the depth of the "ice lake" to be 45 meters. The lake is said to have been created only five million years ago. Measured against the total age of Mars of 4.6 billion years, this is very young. But why did the water ice remain on the surface? Murray and his colleagues suspect that a layer of dust covered the freezing lake and thus thermally insulated and preserved it.
And what if it did?
At the end of February - after the Noordwijk Conference - Formisano's evidence of methane-producing Martian bacteria received unexpectedly terrestrial food. An international team of scientists led by the German microbiologist Axel Schippers, in which researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen and the GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam are involved, found bacteria living far below the ocean floor in drill cores from the eastern Pacific for up to 16 million years ancient sediments. Until now, life in these regions was considered to be out of the question. The bacteria discovered by Schippers and his colleagues under the ocean floor produce methane on a scale that could contribute to the greenhouse effect on earth.
The dispute over life on Mars will thus go into the next round. Gerhard Schwehm, Head of Planetary Missions at ESA, sums up the lively discussions: “Although Formisano's findings are indications of the existence of biological life forms, they are ultimately not conclusive evidence. To do this, you would have to fly there and take a closer look on site or bring the Martian soil back to earth. It will definitely be exciting! "
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