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Scientists narrow down source of Martian methane

Mars Express
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has been circling Mars since 2003. (Spacecraft image credit: ESA / ATG Medialab; Mars: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

It may sound like an April Fool’s joke about flatulent aliens, but this is serious: The scientists behind the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter think they know where a smelly outburst of Martian methane came from.

Any joke would fall flat, because the proposed explanation is purely geological rather than, um, biological.

The source of Martian methane has been a mystery for 15 years, thanks in part to earlier findings from Mars Express.

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Orbiter detects signs of hidden lake on Mars

Mars Express
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, shown in this artist’s conception, has been circling Mars since 2003. (Spacecraft image credit: ESA / ATG Medialab; Mars: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Radar readings from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter point to the location of what appears to be a 12-mile-wide lake of liquid water, buried under about a mile of ice and dust in the Red Planet’s south polar region.

The find is consistent with what scientists have been saying for years about the prospects for subsurface water on Mars, and is likely to give a boost to the search for Red Planet life.

“There are all the ingredients for thinking that life can be there,” Enrico Flamini, project manager for the MARSIS radar instrument on Mars Express, said today during a Rome news conference to discuss the results. “However, MARSIS cannot say anything more.”

The analysis of the MARSIS readings were published today by the journal Science.

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