Home > Newsletter Archive > Newsletter #22
July 15, 2004
*** BREAKING NEWS ***
Ammonia has been detected in the Martian atmosphere by the European Mars Express probe. Reacting to the announcement a NASA scientist says: ""There are no known ways for ammonia to be present in the Martian atmosphere that do not involve life."
We may well be on the brink of a momentous breakthrough. Recently, methane was found in the Martian atmosphere. This in itself was a powerful sign that life might be present. But the discovery of trace amounts of ammonia is even more significant. Ammonia can only survive for a few hours on Mars before it is broken down. So it must be being replenished continuously, hour by hour, for there to be any at all. Release by volcanoes and volcanic vents would be another possible explanation. But none of these have been detected by any experiment over the past 40 years. The biological interpretation is compelling, if not overwhelming.
Spectral evidence of ammonia was obtained by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) on Mars Express. Professor Vittorio Formisano, principal investgator for the instrument, is expected to release details of new findings from the PFS at an international conference being held next week in Paris. The PFS is sensitive to radiation in the spectral region of 1.2 - 5 microns and 5 - 50 microns a region rich with important molecules such as water and carbon dioxide. Ammonia has a spectral line at 10 microns.
One possibility the scientists had to rule out was that the ammonia came from the air bags of the failed Beagle 2 mission. Analysis revealed that the ammonia's distribution was not consistent with this explanation.
I'll be dealing with this remarkable
breakthrough in more detail in Newsletter #23, which will be going out
in the next couple of days.