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23 Mar

Men Are From Mars or Men Are on Mars?

by Sarah Wilkinson

A Russian rocket blasted into space this month to investigate whether any methane gas is present on Mars, as part of the joint ExoMars project created by the European and Russian space agencies.

Methane is a gas created by living microbes, and if it were to be detected it would be a revelation in the space industry as it could prove that life exists or existed on the red planet, some 225 million kilometres away from the Earth (which is itself something of a shock, given that in 2003 Mars was a mere 56 million kms away).

We already know there is life-giving water on Mars.  Just like the Earth it has ice caps, although the water they contain is more elusive.  The American space agency NASA made a huge discovery in 2006 when it found there was water flowing through the planet in even the hottest months of the year, and that the ‘lines’ that appear on our satellite images of Mars are streaks of flowing salt water.

That’s when the questions ‘did life exist on Mars, and can we find out?’ really started to arise.

The ExoMars project involves sending up a Trace Gas Orbiter to sniff the Martian atmosphere for methane, and if the results are positive then this would establish that methane has been generated via geology or a biological process.

As part of the same mission, a stationary lander called Schiaparelli will test the technology for a subsequent mission – ExoMars 2018 – which will see a UK-built rover collect soil samples filled with water particles and drill below the planet’s surface to look for other signs of life.  That’s when the search for Martian life will start in earnest.

These two projects combined will cost an eye-watering £900 million but isn’t it worth it for the chance to make one of the biggest discoveries of all time?  What a time to be alive!

Planetary scientist Dr Peter Grindrod, from Birkbeck, University of London, who is funded by the UK Space Agency, certainly thinks so.  “It’s incredibly exciting,” he enthused.  “This is a series of missions that’s trying to address one of the fundamental questions in science: is there life anywhere else besides the Earth?  Finding that life exists elsewhere in the solar system would be a huge discovery, so the evidence has to be strong.  As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Wouldn’t it be amazing to find out if there really is Life On Mars, or if there has been in the past.  It’s astonishing to think there could be more than just us Earthlings in our solar system!