Researchers have long attempted to determine how the Red Planet's environment came to contain methane gas, which contains carbon, a substance found in all living things.
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Utrecht University determined that meteorites, which continually bombard the surface of Mars, contain enough carbon compounds to generate methane when exposed to sunlight.
They conducted experiments on samples from the Murchison meteorite that fell on Australia more than 40 years ago and which has a similar composition to meteorites on Mars.
Particles from the meteorite were exposed to levels of ultraviolet radiation equivalent to sunlight on the red planet, which is cooler than Earth, and researchers found significant amounts of methane were given off by the samples.
Millions of years of such meteorites hitting Mars could account for a large part of the methane in its atmosphere, they said.
"Whether or not Mars is able to sustain life is not yet known, but future studies should take into account the role of sunlight and debris from meteorites in shaping the planet's atmosphere," geoscientist Andrew McLeod said in a University of Edinburgh release Wednesday.
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