Efforts to assess the possibility of life on Mars have taken a step forward thanks to the work of scientists who have successfully extracted methane from Martian rock.
The discovery was made as part of a joint research project carried out by the University of Aberdeen in collaboration with the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, University of Glasgow, Brock University in Ontario, and the University of Western Ontario.
Scientists crushed samples of meteorites known to have come from Mars and found that six different meteorites – representing volcanic rock from the Red Planet - all contained methane.
The significance of the discovery lies in the possibility that the gas could be used as a food source by simple life beneath the Martian surface, in the same way as it is on earth.
Professor John Parnell, from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Geosciences, directed the research which was funded by a grant from the Science & Technology Facilities Council and published in Nature Communications.
He said: “One of the most exciting developments in the exploration of Mars has been the suggestion of methane in the Martian atmosphere.
“Recent and forthcoming missions by NASA and the European Space Agency respectively are looking at this, however it is so far unclear where the methane comes from, and even whether it is really there.
“However, our research provides a strong indication that rocks on Mars contain a large reservoir of methane.
“This is significant because if simple life did exist below the surface, then it could use methane as a food source, in much the same way as microbes do in a range of environments on earth.
“So while we cannot say that this discovery is proof of the existence of life on Mars, it gives strong encouragement to continue looking for methane sources that could support life.”
Professor Parnell added: "The research has a significance way beyond Mars. Methane is a starting point for complex organic molecules. Our work implies that on many other rocky volcanic planets, in our galaxy and others, there may be methane, which could contribute to the building blocks of life."
Professor Nigel Blamey, of Brock University, was part of the team of scientists involved in the research.
He said: “Measurements we made on samples from earth over many years gave us confidence that we could get this important data from tiny pieces of these precious meteorites from Mars.
"The method we use can detect extremely small quantities of gases like methane, and we plan to expand upon our research by analysing more meteorites in the future.”
Dr Sean McMahon, who was involved in the research while at Aberdeen and has since moved to Yale University, added: "Even if Martian methane does not directly feed microbes, it may signal the presence of a warm, wet, chemically reactive environment where life could thrive.”