Twitter Journalism: Methane on Mars, The Signature of Life?

The distribution of atmospheric methane originating from three principal regions on the Martian surface (NASA)
The distribution of atmospheric methane originating from three principal regions on the Martian surface (NASA)

Today, NASA held a press conference detailing some significant discoveries from observations made of the Martian atmosphere. Using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility and Keck Telescope, scientists from the University of Hawaii and NASA were able to deduce the spectroscopic fingerprint of methane. Although scientists have known for a long time that methane exists in the Martian atmosphere, the big news is that there is lots of it, it appears to be constantly replenished and it is a huge indicator of biological processes under the surface.

Fortunately, I was able to watch the NASA TV broadcast of the press conference at 11am (PST), so I thought I’d try, for the first time, to do some live microblogging of the announcements using Twitter. So, rather than going into vast detail about today’s methane news (as the web has exploded with articles on the subject anyway), I thought I’d publish my Twitter feed during the conference

Starting at 11am, information about the press conference started appearing on the news websites (obviously holding off until the press embargo cleared at the start of the NASA broadcast), so I was primed, ready to Tweet. I had no clue how it would turn out, but if anything, it would be fun. As it turns out, it was a fantastic way to related the news instantly (from voice to text) and within that short hour I connected with new friends who were interested in the same event, got the news to people not watching the conference and had a really good time.

So, here’s the feed (took some time to compile! Does anyone know of a “live” Twitter “ticker” that can publish Tweets straight to your WordPress blog?). I’ve not included some of the banter between fellow bloggers, and kept the key bits. Not sure if this microblogging thing is fully matured yet (and its usefulness could be debated), but it is great to get breaking news like this across the web the second it happens (case and point, the US Airways plane crash in the Hudson River, that hit the Twitter feeds during the NASA conference, and the first news to come from the scene was via a Twitter user with his iPhone in a ferry doing the rescue!)

You can also keep up with future events like this (plus other interesting Astroengine-related news) via Astroengine’s Twitter feed.

10:59:- @Nancy_A You tuned into the NASA TV? I’m hanging off the balcony over a hotel foyer to try to get signal! So far so good… 🙂

11:07:- There are 3 active regions of methane release around Mars – these maps are the first definitive obs of release

11:07:- RT @cosmos4u: Michael Mumma: “Regions of active release” of methane mapped by spectrograph, 600 grams per second coming out of the soil.

11:10:- Methane-active regions have a rich history of water – important for the possibility of recent geological/biological mechanisms

11:13:- RT @bbcscitech: Scientists detect seasonal releases of methane gas on Mars and say either geological/biologicall..

11:15:- Whether its biological or geological, there is an active reservoir of methane – a possible biological waste gas, or biological “food

11:18:- Hydrogen-consuming bacteria *could* generate this methane as a waste product

11:19:- However, this doesn’t prove there *is* biological processes, it simply shows there is some sub-surface process

11:22:- @billgusky You’re right, there is a certain push toward the bio answer, but I think a lot of work needs to be done to confirm

11:24:- @billgusky I’d be shocked actually if it was volcanic, there’s a lack of other gases from volcanism. Interesting to see what we can find out

11:27:- @Zurack NASA TV are covering a press conference – active regions of methane release… A lot of talk about sub-surface ecosystems!

11:28:- @Zurack BUT, options are still open – NASA points out it could be still volcanic… but the excitement is that it *could* be life

11:29:- *If* there was life, any future mission will need to dig deep to get beyond the poisonous oxidizing chems in the first few mtrs

11:32:- Time to look for present-day active life processes, not just ancient life evidence. Could life be just about clinging on under the surface?

11:34:- @jorgecandeias I did some reading on that a while ago – I think all natural stored sources would have been depleted by now if it was part…

11:35:- @jorgecandeias …of a seasonal process. Far more likely a continuing process? Ah, they are discussing that now…

11:44:- @jorgecandeias Yep, timing couldn’t be better! I wonder if they’ll alter the landing site now.

11:45 @jorgecandeias Although I suspect they’ve known this info for a while now, possibly already influenced the MSL landing site

11:47:- Oh cool, they will prob use CRISM data to follow up on these results to look out for mineral by-products

11:50:- Does this recent methane detection show there is sub-surface liquid water? Possibly, but not necessary. Subliming ice can create methane too

11:54:- Need to refine the search area to work out the size of the Mars methane release zones.

11:55:- For now, scientists don’t know if methane is being released explosively, gradual jets or diffuse release over a wide area

11:57:- Apparently, it is far easier to be a methane ‘consumer’ than ‘producer’ – basic life *could* take advantage of surface chemistry to live

12:00:- Wow, now that was a great hour of NASA TV 🙂 Looking forward to @Nancy_A ‘s article coming up on the Universe Today!

And here’s an accompanying article Nancy Atkinson wrote (whilst following NASA TV on Twitter too!): Large Quantities of Methane Being Replenished on Mars, Universe Today.

My thoughts? Although this is some stunning news, it isn’t quite ground-breaking yet. The meat of the news was actually reported back in November (Mars Methane Mystery Still Beckons, Universe Today), so today’s presentation was going over old ground plus including new, refined studies of the methane content in the Martian atmosphere. The surprising thing is that there is far more methane than previously thought and the content appears to change significantly with the seasons.

One explanation for this seasonal change is that during summer, permafrost layers are heated, reducing the effectiveness of the Mars soil and rock by subliming (possibly even melting) the ice, allowing methane to be vented.

So far three main locations have been singled out as the main methane sources; the regions of Arabia Terra, Nili Fossae, and the south-east quadrant of Syrtis Major. The latter is an ancient volcano 1,200 kilometers across. Of course, this could indicate the methane production mechanism is volcanic, but the NASA scientists at the conference had a fair few arguments against.

If I were a little more cynical, I’d question the importance being placed on the possibility of bacterial production of methane After all, the Mars Science Laboratory could use all the positive press it can get at the moment!.

Regardless, this is a very exciting line of research, one that I hope will develop even more over the coming months. This could be our best clue yet of the present habitability of what we once thought was a dead planet…

4 thoughts on “Twitter Journalism: Methane on Mars, The Signature of Life?”

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