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When do we stop looking for life on Mars? Professor Jack McConnell on the MATMOS project

When do we stop looking for life on Mars? Professor Jack McConnell on the MATMOS project

Will we ever be able to say there is nothing alive on Mars? asked Stephen Strauss in a column for CBC News online Oct. 8:

Exactly how do we decide when it's time to end the focus on our planetary neighbour and turn our primary exploratory efforts elsewhere?

I ask in part because a casual reader of recent national headlines might have been tempted to pronounce that Canada seems to have aligned with Mars. In August, the Canadian Space Agency and the California Institute of Technology agreed to develop an instrument to help measure methane in the Martian atmosphere.

It will fly on a joint NASA/European Space Agency Mars in 2016.

. . .

This interpretation is not just media blather or the fallout of all those little-green-men-on-Mars science fiction stories.

“All the Mars science is couched around the search for life, even if it isn’t explicitly stated,” says Professor Jack McConnell, acting director of York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, who is one of the scientists behind the effort.

For example, there was debate between NASA and ESA scientists about what instrument to send on the mission. Some favoured one that measured winds, another carbon dioxide, but ultimately the methane won out because of its life-on-Mars component, says McConnell.

The MATMOS instrument will try to figure out what created the methane in the Martian atmosphere. Was it the byproduct of a bacterial biology, as is the case for 90 per cent of the methane found in Earth’s atmosphere? Or did it come from some geological process such as the methane-producing oxidation of iron that happens on Earth?

If it does bear an isotopic signature of a biological source, then it follows there is something alive — probably bacteria — on Mars that is producing it. And if there is life on Mars, it seems almost imperative that humans should travel to there to find out what Martian life might be and what it might do. We will understand our evolution better if we understand their evolution better.

. . .

It is not clear what proving there’s no life on Mars would involve.

McConnell told me, “My feeling is that if we find life, that is one type of answer. But if we don’t, someone will always say, ‘You didn’t look here, you didn’t look there, you didn’t look deep enough to find the fossils.’”

Professor McConnell is among the York University researchers working on the MATMOS project, a partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a member of the Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS).

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin