Methane and hydrogen could be key to life on Mars

22 June 2012

Finding out if there is life on Mars may only be two simple measurements away.

Methane and hydrogen could be key to life on Mars - Imported from Legacy News system

Dr Christopher Oze

Finding out if there is life on Mars may only be two simple measurements away.

New research led by University of Canterbury geologist Dr Christopher Oze (Geological Sciences) suggests that life on Mars could be detected by simply measuring the ratio of hydrogen to methane in the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

The research, which also involved L. Camille Jones (Stanford University), Jonas Goldsmith (Bryn Mawr College) and Robert Rosenbauer (US Geological Survey), was recently published in the scientific journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

Dr Oze said over the past three years the team had, through a series of experiments undertaken at the Water-Rock Interaction Laboratory in the United States, examined the dynamics hydrogen and methane production in hydrothermal systems.

“Life forms on Mars may be under the surface of the planet, where no probe can currently go right now. But methane and hydrogen formed in specific hydrothermal systems are eventually released at the surface so all that needs to be done is for an analysis to be made at a vent to measure the gas that is released.

“What’s really nice about this is that it is an incredibly simple method – all you need to do is measure the methane and hydrogen levels on Mars, something that can easily be done now.”

The team’s experiments, which excluded living things, involved measuring the rates of methane production during a process called olivine hydrolysis or serpentinization, which occurs in the deep subsurface of both Earth and Mars. Dr Oze said olivine is an abundant mineral found on both planets and, by using water to convert it to serpentine, the team measured how quickly methane was produced. This was then compared to measurements taken in the field where living organisms were present.

“From these experiments the hydrogen to methane ratio over time divided hydrothermal systems that did not involve living matter from those in which biota was present. This really gave us an ‘aha’ moment where we realised this method could be used to look at life on other planets,” he said.

“From our calculations low hydrogen-methane levels could indicate that there might be life, if it’s similar to that on Earth.”

The full PNAS paper can be found at


For more information please contact:
Dr Christopher Oze
Geological Sciences
University of Canterbury
Ph: +64 3 364-2987 ext 45680

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