15:09 GMT29 October 2020
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    The source of methane on Mars, which suggests life is present there, is likely to be established soon. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, tasked to seek out the gas on the red planet, has begun making first measurements. Sputnik discussed the possible origins of methane on Mars with Hakan Svedhem, the ExoMars TGO project scientist at the ESA.

    Sputnik: What is your theory on the origins of methane on Mars? What could its possible sources be?

    Hakan Svedhem: It’s really a puzzle, we have seen in the case from previous missions that there may be small amounts of methane on Mars; indeed, much less than on the Earth. At the moment, we don’t know where it comes from, and we don’t know really how it is distributed over the planet, and why it seems to be changing with time. It could potential he be generated by geological processes underground but it could also be generated by biological activity just like on the Earth.

    We know the famous cows on the Earth, for example, and many other animals, but also understand that things like microbes, even underground, could be the source of this methane. The particular thing with methane is that it has a very short lifetime. It’s broken down by the ultraviolet light from the sun and if it’s not refilled continuously or temporarily, it would be gone by now and there would be no methane on Mars, and that's why we see this as such a puzzling story.

    Sputnik: So you’re saying that you don’t exactly know whether it's biological or geological, if it’s a living organism, for example, that's emanating the gas, what could these organisms be? Are we talking about primitive life forms or could there be something more complex, do you feel?

    Hakan Svedhem: It’s most likely very primitive like microbes or so on, and they need to be underground because if they would be on the surface on the planet they would actually have been sterilized already long ago, we have very strong ultraviolet radiation on the surface but we also have cosmic radiation that would kill all the life on the surface, we cannot imagine any higher life forms walking around on the surface, it’s most likely something underground if it would be biological.

    Sputnik: What conditions are necessary to sustain life on the planet Mars, perhaps, you can give us a little bit more detail on that?

    Hakan Svedhem: You need protection against these outer dangers like radiation and cosmic radiation but we also need water in most cases. We don’t know if any life forms that can really survive without water, so we think we would need that too. But we know that there is water in the form of ice on the planet and underground, and in the past we have had good reason to believe that Mars's climate has been really very wet and it had a more dense atmosphere and higher temperatures so the water would actually be liquid on the surface, that would be a very good environment for life to be too established and to be sustained.

    Sputnik: In case the gas is purely geological in its nature would that still matter for science and astronomy: if so, why is that?

    Hakan Svedhem: We don’t have any evidence today if Mars is active as a planet, geologically active, it seems to be a dead and solid planet, but if, indeed, it would be of geological origin then we know that there's some activity that’s going on on the planet, and that’s of course interesting too, maybe not as exciting for people as thinking about life, but for scientists is still very important information.

    Sputnik: What’s your feeling then about terraforming of Mars? There’s been obviously lots of conversation in the recent past with regard to being able to cultivate life on Mars for human beings to live there, is that something that you believe will happen one day? What’s your take on that?

    Hakan Svedhem: Yes, one day possibly.  It's, of course, extremely complicated to do this and for sure the first humans that would arrive at Mars would have to be living in their protective little bubble, but if you really want to terraform Mars it’s a huge project, it has to be done with some smart engineering, and it will probably take hundreds, maybe thousands of years to come to a situation where Mars would look anything like the Earth.

    The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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    organisms, life, Mars
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