Kiwis help in search for life on Mars
Tue, 12 Jun 2012 6:16a.m.
By Imogen Crispe
New findings partly researched in New Zealand could be very soon used to find out whether life exists on Mars.
University of Canterbury researcher Dr Christopher Oze and his team have unexpectedly found a simple way which could be used to test for the presence of life on Mars.
According to the team’s findings, a test to find out the ratio of hydrogen to methane in Mars’ atmosphere could tell us whether or not life exists there.
Dr Oze told 3 News testing for the amount of hydrogen and methane in the atmosphere will be much simpler than digging down into the crust of Mars to look for life.
“If life [on Mars] is same as it is here, this ratio could be used to determine if life is present below the surface.”
He says his team’s findings could be used on Mars very soon and he hopes researchers will be looking into it within two weeks.
“They already have all the satellites and probes… on Mars so all they need to do is take a look. It’s a very simple thing to measure.”
And Dr Oze says it may not be long before we know if life exists on Mars.
“I would imagine pretty soon they’ll give us a yay or nay on life on Mars.”
But the connection with Mars was not planned - the team originally just wanted to compare rates of conversion of hydrogen to methane by living things and non-living things.
Dr Oze says he was ecstatic when he realised what the research meant.
“That was a shocker to us,” Dr Oze says. “We felt pretty good.”
The team of four, made up of research designer Dr Oze with researchers from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and the US Geological Survey, found that living things convert hydrogen into methane faster than geothermal processes, so in places where life exists there will be more methane than in places where there is no life.
They found that where there was no life, the lowest ratio of hydrogen to methane was 42:1 (meaning 42 times as much hydrogen as methane), whereas when life was present the ratio of hydrogen to methane was maximum 33:1 and more often was 10:1.
The team’s experiments involved placing the mineral olivine, which is present on Earth and Mars, with sea water in high temperature, high pressure environments to see how much and how quickly methane was produced.
This was to mimic the conditions of hydrothermal vents on the Earth’s ocean floors.
“We essentially determined the fastest and most optimal way geologically to make hydrogen and convert it to methane.”
They then compared their findings to the ratio of hydrogen to methane in an environment containing living organisms.
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