The new results from astronomers using two telescopes on Hawaii – NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility and the giant Keck telescope – which reveal the presence of methane in the atmosphere of Mars are enormously exciting. As far as we know, methane signals the presence of one of two things – either life or, more likely I would say, substantial geological activity on the surface. The volatile molecule will break down in the atmosphere, so for it to exist in detectable quantities it must be being replenished by one means or the other.
The press release makes no mention of the results from ESA’s Mars Express which also found methane in Mars’ atmosphere, announced a few years ago. The results of the Mars Express team were published in Science, the same journal that will carry the new results.
From what I can gather, the new results are an important confirmation of the Mars Express data, and move our understanding of what’s going on a step further forward. But not to mention that an ESA spacecraft had got there first is certainly uncharitable, and verges on the misleading (and why didn’t journalists check the story by googling ‘methane +mars’, for example?).
There used to be an old and hoary joke doing the rounds about how many times water had been discovered on Mars. Let’s not do the same with methane, potentially the most exciting discovery on the red planet for quite some time.
P.S. As ever Emily at the Planetary Society has all the details, including what exactly is new (seasonal variation) and how this fits with other work.