2009 . . . The Year We Make Contact (Sorta . . . Maybe . . . We'll See) [Akin]

jimmyakin.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341bfbfe53ef010536cce5ad970b-320wi The picture on the left is the planet Mars–not as it usually looks (dirty red), but as a false color image to show the presence of something very interesting on the red planet.
Or rather, something very interesting above the surface of the red planet.
The red and yellow patches represent zones of the martian atmosphere in which there is an strong presence of methane.
Why is that significant?
Methane is a compound that is released by life.
And a few other things, such as mud volcanoes. (MUD VOLCANOES! WOO-HOO!)
But there are no known mud volanoes, or active volcanoes of any sort, on Mars.
So that raises the possibility that this stuff is caused by life. Specifically: By underground microbes.
In fact, we see a phenomenon a lot like this on earth. Here on terra firma there are various places where large pockets of underground microbes that produce large plumes of methane in our atmosphere. (Which is one reason why the pluming effect seen above is significant; the stuff isn’t even spread throughout the martian atmosphere. *Something *down on the surface–or below–is generating it.)
In fact, there’s one such place not too far up the coast from me in Santa Barbara.
The pattern is also cyclical, with the methane plumes appearing in the martian spring and summer . . . just when the planet is getting warmer and life might be more active . . . and disappearing in the martian fall and winter.
So there are some NASA scientists who are really stoked and talking publicly about this as a possible sign of life.
And it’s not the first we’ve had. In the 1990s there was that meteorite from Mars that showed (debatable) fossils of microorganisms, and back in the 1970s one of the Viking probe tests for life gave a positive result (though other tests didn’t).
So . . . who knows? In the photo above you may be looking at the atmospheric signature of life on Mars . . . or not. There *are *geochemical processes that could produce the same thing.
We’d need to do more tests to know.
I’d love to know the answer on this, but even if there is life, I’d like to know the answer to another question: Where did it come from?
Even if Mars has life, it may not be native to Mars. It may have come from . . . Earth.
As Martian meteorites (there’s more than one!) illustrate, matter can pass from one planet to another in the solar system, and here on Earth we have microorganisms that are extremophiles–able to live in very inhospitable environments.
These could be carried to other planets due to impact events that blow chunks of Earth rock into space, or (for all I know) they could be high in the Earth’s atmosphere and get carried to other worlds by the solar wind (and Mars is definitely downwind from Earth).
So far as I can tell, we may find extremophile organisms from Earth all over the solar system–living ones where they find a suitable niche and the dead remains of them elsewhere.
So, I’ve still got questions: (1) Is there really life on Mars? and (2) If there is, where did it come from? Earth? Mars? Or somewhere else?
Thursday NASA had a presser on all this, but they don’t have embeddable on-demand video of it on their web site at this point (stupid government agency!) and nobody has yet posted it to YouTube, but
HERE’S A GOOD LIVE-BLOGGING SUMMARY OF IT.
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