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See Inside May 2007

The Mystery of Methane on Mars and Titan

It might mean life, it might mean unusual geologic activity; whichever it is, the presence of methane in the atmospheres of Mars and Titan is one of the most tantalizing puzzles in our solar system

Of all the planets in the solar system other than Earth, Mars has arguably the greatest potential for life, either extinct or extant. It resembles Earth in so many ways: its formation process, its early climate history, its reservoirs of water, its volcanoes and other geologic processes. Microorganisms would fit right in. Another planetary body, Saturn's largest moon Titan, also routinely comes up in discussions of extraterrestrial biology. In its primordial past, Titan possessed conditions conducive to the formation of molecular precursors of life, and some scientists believe it may have been alive then and might even be alive now.

To add intrigue to these possibilities, astronomers studying both these worlds have detected a gas that is often associated with living things: methane. It exists in small but significant quantities on Mars, and Titan is literally awash with it. A biological source is at least as plausible as a geologic one, for Mars if not for ?Titan. Either explanation would be fascinating in its own way, revealing either that we are not alone in the universe or that both Mars and Titan harbor large underground bodies of water together with unexpected levels of geochemical activity. Understanding the origin and fate of methane on these bodies will provide crucial clues to the processes that shape the formation, evolution and habitability of terrestrial worlds in this solar system and possibly in others.

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