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Tech Scientist Finds Methane In Martian Meteorites

SOCORRO, N.M. July 9, 2015 – New Mexico Tech adjunct professor and alumni Dr. Nigel Blamey recently published research that shows meteorites from Mars have elevated levels of methane – suggesting the Red Planet could harbor life.

Blamey earned his doctorate at New Mexico in 2000 in geology, with advisor Dr. Dave Norman. He is an assistant professor at Brock University in Canada and spends his summers in Socorro with an adjunct professor assignment.

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Dr. Nigel Blamey in his lab at New Mexico Tech.

 

The new publication, “Evidence for Methane in Martian Meteorites,” is in the June 16, 2015, issue of Nature Communications.

Blamey’s investigation started more than a decade ago when he read an article by fellow Tech grads Mike Zolensky and Dr. Scott Sandford, researchers working on NASA’s Stardust Mission. Zolenski was examining meteorites from the solar system and had found fluid inclusions, which is Blamey’s specialty.

“That triggered me,” Blamey said. “I specialize in gases found in fluid inclusions. So we tested terrestrial analogs and learned that some Earth basalts have elevated levels of methane.”

Along with collaborators Dr. John Parnell of the University of Aberdeen and Dr. Darren Mark of the University of Glasgow, they started acquiring samples of meteorites known to be from Mars. Only about 100 kg of meteorites have been accepted as having Martian origins, so procuring samples is not easy.

“We first showed that Earth rocks have methane,” Blamey said. “Then we could convince people to donate samples of Martian meteorites for us to analyze.”

They received six samples from various collections, including Japan, Albuquerque, London and NASA. The samples were from 0.1 to 0.2 grams – about the size of a grain of rice. They then crushed the samples and used Blamey’s quadrupole mass spectrometer to study the contents.

“We crushed the first one and saw methane,” he said. “We were pretty excited. And we did it all here at New Mexico Tech. The methane signals were 50 times the background methane.”

The quadrupole mass spectrometer was developed by Dr. Norman before he passed away in 2008. Blamey has operated that lab ever since.

Methane on Earth is largely produced by organic processes. Blamey said the Martian subsurface could be producing methane inorganically. Rock that is exposed to water can undergo serpentinization, which changes the rock to a hydrous mineralogy. In the presence of hydrogen, the carbon within olivine-bearing rock can produce methane, he said, without organic involvement. The simplest of microbes – methanogens – feed on methane.

“NASA is spending large amounts of money looking for life on Mars,” he said. “The Europeans too. The simplest life forms are microbes and they need energy – methane. Now we have a target. If we look for life on Mars, we should be looking at the subsurface where there has been serpentinization.”

Blamey’s recent publication is the first step. He is working with a new series of meteorites on campus in Socorro this summer.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech