Ben Bova: Now, about Mars ...

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On Mars, something that smells bad is looking good to astrobiologists.

Meanwhile, on Earth, a major corporation is ready to sell solar-electric panels for your home, and desert plants in Arizona are telling us that global warming is indeed changing our climate.

Mars first.

Methane is a colorless, odorless gas in its pure form, but as the principle ingredient of human and animal flatulence, it smells fetid because it’s mixed with other components. Methane is also the main constituent of natural gas, where it’s deliberately mixed with a slight amount of sulphur compounds so we can quickly smell a gas leak.

But the detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars is giving astrobiologists hope that life exists on that barren red planet.

Methane was first detected in the Martian atmosphere several years ago by the European Space Agency’s orbiting Mars Express craft. A few weeks ago, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland reported finding plumes of methane with instruments on the ground here on Earth.

The methane is coming out of the ground at three different locations on Mars. Each area shows evidence of permafrost, water ice frozen beneath the surface of the ground — evidence that liquid water once flowed there.

The methane emanations are strongest in summer, weakest in winter. Methane is quickly broken up in the Martian atmosphere, so something is replenishing the supply each spring. Maybe something alive.

More than 90 percent of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere comes from flatulent animals and decomposing plants — and bacteria, some of which live deep underground.

Could similar methanogenic microorganisms be living deep beneath the Martian surface? Mars is a bitterly cold and barren world, a frozen desert except in the polar regions, which are covered with ice — both frozen water and dry ice (carbon dioxide). But microorganisms might be able to survive below ground, where water could be available from the permafrost ice.

The plumes of methane could be caused by nonbiological processes, but it’s difficult to see how geological causes would produce methane in the warmer part of the Martian year and dwindle in the cold of winter.

Are bug farts the first real evidence of life on another world?

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Three weeks ago, Dow Chemical Co. announced that it intends to sell roof shingles that can convert sunlight into electricity.

Solar-voltaic cells have been around for more than half a century. The Vanguard satellite launched in 1958 was powered by solar cells. You probably have a calculator or wristwatch that runs on sunlight, converted to electricity cleanly and quietly by solar cells.

Dow is, of course, one of the largest chemical companies in the world. Now it’s going into the solar-power business with a $50 million project called Dow Solar Solutions. Dow officials plan to sell their thermoplastic roof shingles throughout North America.

At the latitude of North America, sunlight delivers about 300 watts per square meter to the Earth’s surface every daylit hour. That’s more energy than the average American consumes. Solar cells are nowhere near 100 percent efficient, but they have reached the point where they can produce all the electrical energy a house needs. Just cover your roof with solar cells and kiss your electric utility company goodbye.

Or better yet, make a deal with the utility company to buy its electricity when you need it, and sell electricity back when your solar cells are generating more power than you use. People are already making such deals in New Mexico and other parts of the country.

At present, electricity from solar cells is more expensive than electricity generated by conventional power plants, in part because the sun isn’t shining 24 hours each day. You need to generate twice as much electricity as you normally use and store some of it for nighttime and cloud-covered days.

Dow Solar Solutions is working with home builders such as Pulte Homes Inc. and Lennar Corp. of Miami to produce and market its electricity-generating roof shingles.

“I can see utility companies paying for the roofing for customers,” a Dow executive was quoted. “It would save them money on building power plants because the solar shingles can act like individual little power plants.”

He added, “One day, a person would no more think about buying a house without solar shingles than they would buy a house without plumbing.”

Solar energy may well be the wave of the future, especially with a major corporation like Dow in the picture.

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And if greenhouse warming caused by burning fossil fuels continues to alter our planet’s climate, we will need solar cells and other energy sources to replace those fossil fuels.

While politicians and pundits argue about global warming, scientists continue to find evidence that it’s very real.

A husband-and-wife team of scientists at the University of Arizona has been studying plant life in Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains for more than 20 years. Since 1983 they have scrutinized nearly 600 plant species from the desert scrubland pine forest.

More than 93 of those species have moved to higher ground over those 20-some years, while summer temperatures have climbed almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those are measurements. And observations. They are not opinions or arguments. Those plants don’t care why the climate is warming or who is to blame for it. They are simply responding to the changing climate conditions in which they exist.

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One final note: Has anyone tumbled to the fact that the trillion-dollar (more or less) stimulus plan passed by the Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama is a “trickle down” plan?

The hundreds of billions of dollars that the government is going to spend will go mainly to big banks and corporations, not to individual taxpayers. Shades of Reaganomics!

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of nearly 120 books, including “Mars Life,” a novel about the human exploration of the Red Planet. Bova’s Web site address is

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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