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Posted on Thursday, July 15 - 2004

" Ammonia may have been found in Mars' atmosphere which some scientists say could indicate life on the Red Planet. Researchers say its spectral signature has been tentatively detected by sensors on board the European Space Agency's orbiting Mars Express craft. Ammonia survives for only..."

Ammonia may have been found in Mars' atmosphere which some scientists say could indicate life on the Red Planet. Researchers say its spectral signature has been tentatively detected by sensors on board the European Space Agency's orbiting Mars Express craft. Ammonia survives for only a short time in the Martian atmosphere so it must be getting constantly replenished. There are two possible sources: either active volcanoes, none of which have been found yet on Mars, or microbes. "Ammonia could be the key to finding life on Mars," one US space agency (Nasa) scientist told BBC News Online. Spectral evidence of the gas was seen bythe Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) on Mars Express.

Professor Vittorio Formisano, principal investigator for the instrument, is expected to release details of new findings from the PFS at an international conference being held next week in Paris. The PFS is sensitive to radiation in the spectral region of 1.2-5 microns and 5-50 microns - a region rich with important molecules such as water and carbon dioxide. Ammonia has a spectral line at 10 microns. Although Mars Express has been in orbit around Mars since December 2003, scientists have so far only analysed a fraction of the data the PFS has produced. Researchers say this is because they are still coming to terms with the complexities of the PFS as well as coping with some naggingpower problems on Mars Express. So far the PFS has observed a depletion of carbon dioxide and an enrichment of water vapour over some of the large extinct volcanoes on Mars. But it is the detection of minor compounds, possible in the sensors high-resolution mode, which are causing excitement. The detection of ammonia comes just a few months after methane was found in the Martian atmosphere. Methane is another gas with a possible biological origin. Ammonia is not a stable molecule in the Martian atmosphere. If it was not replenished in some way, it would only last a few hours before it vanished. One possibility the scientists had to rule out was that the ammonia came from the air bags of the failed Beagle 2 mission. Analysis revealed thatthe. ...

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