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There's a slim chance that NASA's next big announcement concerns life on Mars

Mars atmosphere MAVENUniversity of Colorado/NASAArtist’s rendition of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. Image: UC/NASA

NASA’s got another “announcement” coming up.

It’s already been a very busy year for the space agency. Its spacecraft DAWN completed a spectacular journey to the dwarf planet Ceres.

Progress on its mission to put humans on Mars is producing regular, exciting updates.

And recently, the big one – confirmation the Red Planet is home to flowing water at certain times of the year.

And of course, it’s all got a huge boost from the promotion and success of Ridley Scott’s widely praised blockbuster “The Martian”, a movie about humans surviving on Mars.

Matt Damon in ‘The Martian’

So it’s not surprising that everyone has been whipped up into such a state that when NASA now announces it’s going to make an announcement, everyone immediately starts talking about water and alien life, as opposed to, say, what Curiosity might have found in a tiny hole it drilled in a Gale Crater rock back in August.

With that in mind, here’s a snippet of the announcement of an announcement that NASA will make at 2pm EST on November 5. (6am AEDT, November 6.):

“NASA to announce new findings on fate of Mars’ atmosphere. NASA will provide details of key science findings from the agency’s ongoing exploration of Mars…”

On the guest list – now the first stop for media trying to get the jump – are several members of the MAVEN team.

MAVEN is NASA’s spacecraft which began orbiting Mars on September 21 last year.

There was a time when Mars had a dense enough atmosphere to allow liquid water to flow freely on the surface. Over millions of years, Mars has lost 99% of that atmosphere and it is now just 1% as thick as that of the Earth’s. The big “but” is – why hasn’t it lost it all?

MAVEN’s main mission is to study why and how Mars lost so much of its atmosphere to space. But there’s one component which just won’t go away – methane.

Research indicates that, at the maximum rate it has been measured at, methane in Mars’s atmosphere has a lifespan of four Earth years. It it were being destroyed the regular way, by UV radiation, that lifespan blows out to somewhere between 350-600 years.

So the other part of that is understanding why and how methane continues to be not only replenished, but replenished so rapidly.

You could stick any number of possibilities on a board, throw a dart at it, and have an equal chance of it being proven correct. Most of them probably don’t warrant the risk of letting the world’s media down with dull explanations of the same chemical or geological processes which produce methane on Earth.

Except one – there is an exceptionally slim possibility NASA will hint at the potential of some kind of alien life on Mars. One model – that NASA has found that plant life could survive on Mars. The other – that plant life is already surviving on Mars.

It’s important to note that MAVEN is not equipped with instruments with the ability to “sniff” methane. But the Curiosity rover can, and in 2014, detected a large spike in methane in the atmosphere around it.

No one knows where it came from, but while MAVEN cannot detect methane, the measurements it takes in Mars’s upper atmosphere are hoped to be able to be used to test models for how and why methane is being produced on Mars.

Water on Mars.

There’s a theory that while water may have flowed freely over the surface of Mars, it was never for any prolonged period, and any surface habitats were only very short-term options.

But the case is much stronger that warm water was persistently present in the subsurface. The case that those conditions still exist in some form got a timely boost recently when NASA confirmed water still flows on Mars.

And if water still flows on Mars, it might be permanently present in the subsurface, and in that environment, there may be microorganisms that produce methane living in, known as methanogens.

Again, MAVEN has no potential at all to investigate the physical presence of methanogens. It’s main functions are all to do with measuring solar winds and ions and isotopes in the Martian atmosphere. Best leave the conclusions to those findings to the experts.

And that’s all we can confidently say about the possibility Friday’s conference will have anything to do with alien life.

Still exciting is the other possibilities that MAVEN has unlocked a major secret that helps us understand what’s happening to Mars’s atmosphere, and in doing so, has brought us one step closer to understanding how to rebuild it. Just two weeks ago, NASA updated us on the how water and carbon dioxide molecules disassociate into their individual hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atomic components.

Mars atmosphere MAVEN annotatedUniversity of Colorado; NASAThree views of an escaping atmosphere, obtained by MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph. By observing all of the products of water and carbon dioxide breakdown, MAVEN’s remote sensing team can characterise the processes that drive atmospheric loss on Mars. These processes may have transformed the planet from an early Earth-like climate to the cold and dry climate of today.

It even has an ozone layer.

And if we can understand how Mars’s atmosphere breaks down, maybe we can figure out how to rebuild it to the point billions of years ago when scientists believe it was oxygen-rich.

Now that’s more exciting than tiny plants.

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