UCL News


Martian exploration: life but not as we know it

9 September 2004

Recent data has shown that methane gas is present in the atmosphere of Mars - a finding that may mean there is life below the surface.

Dr Andrew Coates of UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory will explain why the latest findings from the exploration of Mars are forcing us to rewrite textbooks about the red planet at this year's BA Festival of Science.

Speaking at the session 'Mars and the search for life', Dr Coates will assess the latest results from European Space Agency's Mars Express Orbiter and NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and what they tell us about Mars as a possible platform for life in the past, present and future.

Dr Andrew Coates, of UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory,says:

"The idea that life once did, or could now, exist on Mars has preoccupied us for years. With data now being beamed back to Earth we are tantalisingly close to definitively answering whether there's life on Mars.

"On Earth, methane is produced by living organisms and we know that it only survives in the Martian atmosphere for a short time so it must be being produced constantly. Data from Mars Express should tell us whether there is any volcanic activity, a possible source for the methane. If none is found, we will have to consider this as possible evidence for the presence of life."

Dr Coates will also report on new Mars Express measurements on how the solar wind scavenges the Mars atmosphere, pulling it away into space. Unlike the Earth which has a protective magnetic shield cocooning its atmosphere, Mars lost its shield 3.8 billion years ago and its atmosphere is vulnerable to space weather events. Since then the Martian atmosphere has been gradually eroded away. By understanding how this happened, how much of Mars' early atmosphere may have been lost, it will be possible to deduce how the magnetic field may once have acted as a 'cradle for life'.

Future and potential missions to Mars, in which the UK could play a key role in the follow-up to Beagle, will also be discussed in the lecture.

Notes to editors

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The session will also include talks on 'Missions to the early solar system' and 'Cassini-Huygens', and will take place between 13.30 and 16.30 on Thursday 9 September at the Newman Building Lecture Theatre A, University of Exeter