Michael J. Mumma, founding director of NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology, spoke to a standing-room only crowd on Wednesday, April 11, about the search for methane on Mars.
The event was co-hosted by the Physics department and the Astronomy club and took place in Physics room 101. A question-and-answer session followed Mumma’s presentation, titled “Methane on Mars: Geochemistry or Biology?”
Mumma was introduced by sophomore Justin Nieusma, president of the Astronomy club.
“(He) is so influential he even has an asteroid named after him,” Nieusma said.
Mumma began his presentation with some background about Earth and Mars, examining why Earth is wet and explaining that there is water on Mars today. Mumma said the water in Mars’ southern ice cap could cover the planet with 11 meters of water.
Mumma also covered primordial chemistry, explaining that Mars has a very low-density atmosphere.
“If you tried to breathe that air, you would die,” he said.
Mumma said biology on Mars does not exist on the surface of the planet but under it.
“Mars, deep below its permafrost layer, does have a habitable zone,” he said.
Mumma then covered the search for signs of life on Mars.
“How do you identify something that could be indicative of life?” he asked. Mumma went through the origins of methane on Earth to understand the constraints of methane on Mars. Mumma said on Earth there are biological communities below the surface of the Arctic Circle.
“Life can exist in these deep isolated regions if it has a source of energy and nutrients,” he said.
Mumma said previous searches for methane on Mars have come back negative and that in 2004 the Mars Express Mission made a finding, but it is not believed to be credible.
According to Mumma’s presentation, the Goddard Center is “completing the most comprehensive and complete research of methane on Mars to date.”
Mumma said there are indications that Mars was once a wet planet and that methane exists where water is most abundant.
“Maybe one of these days we’ll know the answer,” he said.
During the question-and-answer session, Mumma answered a few questions from students and several from professors in the audience.
One issue that came up was the issue of religion coming into play in the search for life on Mars.
“Nothing is excluded. You find the evidence, you interpret it and that’s what it is,” Mumma said. “Independent inquiry leads us to greater truth.”
Mumma said humans have always been interested in the origin of life.
“I don’t think anyone accepts this as unequivocal evidence of life on Mars,” he said. “(But) it seems very unlikely that there isn’t some life on Mars.”