London, March 28 (ANI): Scientists have reported the discovery of a methane-producing mineral on Mars.
According to a report in Nature News, the evidence for the existence of the mineral, known as serpentine, was found by Bethany Ehlmann, a PhD student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Ehlmann used a spectrometer on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to identify two small outcrops of the mineral.
Serpentine arises from another mineral, olivine, in a hydrothermal process in which hydrogen gas is produced - a potential energy source for microbes that could in turn produce methane.
The process of serpentinization also produces methane itself, without the need for life. "It was a past source of methane, for sure," said Ehlmann.
Serpentine can also be altered, in lower temperature water, into carbonate.
However, the finding does not rule out life on Mars today. That depends on whether the presence of serpentine has anything to do with the apparent production of present-day methane.
"It's certainly an intriguing coincidence that one of the major regions in which we find these minerals has been highlighted as a possible source region of methane. But, there's this timing problem," said Ehlmann.
The problem of timing arises because serpentine on Mars is ancient, about 3.8 billion years old, whereas the reports of methane gas are contemporary.
Yet it is possible, according to Ehlmann, that fractures deep underground could be providing the necessary water and heat for serpentine to be formed today, and for methane to percolate up. (ANI)