More Moon, Venus, Mars

StarDate: May 20, 2009

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Mars is alive.

Using two telescopes in Hawaii, a team of scientists has sniffed out evidence of life. But it may not be living organisms. Instead, the observations may show that Mars retains some geological life.

The evidence comes from several outbursts of methane -- the main ingredient of natural gas.

On Earth, most methane comes from biological activity, such as the decay of dead plants at the bottom of a swamp or the digestive processes of people and cattle. But methane is also a byproduct of some geological processes involving iron oxide. And there's plenty of it on Mars -- that's where the planet gets its orange color.

Reactions with sunlight and with other chemical compounds quickly destroy methane in the Martian atmosphere, so any methane that's present must have been released recently.

The research team detected several outbursts of methane -- up to 20,000 tons of it in a single cloud. It must have come from underground -- either from bacteria living in warm, wet chambers below the surface, or from dormant volcanoes that retain some of their heat. NASA's next mission to Mars will carry instruments that may reveal the source of the methane on this not-quite-dead planet.

Look for Mars low in the east at first light tomorrow. It looks like a moderately bright star not far below the crescent Moon. The planet Venus is to their right. It's the "morning star" -- part of a beautiful triangle that lights up the dawn sky.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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