Scientists find likely source of methane on Mars

This NASA photo released June 7, 2018 shows a low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. (AFP)
Updated 02 April 2019

Scientists find likely source of methane on Mars

  • The presence of methane in the vicinity was confirmed by readings taken 24 hours earlier by NASA’s Curiosity rover

PARIS: The mystery of methane on Mars may finally be solved as scientists Monday confirmed the presence of the life-indicating gas on the Red Planet as well as where it might have come from.
In the 15 years since a European probe reported traces of the gas in the Martian atmosphere, debate has raged over the accuracy of the readings showing methane, which on Earth is produced by simple lifeforms.
Because methane gas dissipates relatively quickly — within around 12 years on Earth — and due to the difficulty of observing Mars’ atmosphere, many scientists questioned previous studies that relied on a single data set.
Now an international team of experts have compared observations from two separate spacecraft, taken just one day apart in 2013, to find independent proof of methane on our neighboring planet.
Furthermore, they conducted two parallel experiments to determine the most likely source of methane on Mars to be an ice sheet east of Gale Crater — itself long assumed to be a dried up lake.
“This is very exciting and largely unexpected,” Marco Giuranna, from Rome’s National Astrophysics Institute, told AFP.
“Two completely independent lines of investigation pointed to the same general area of the most likely source for the methane.”
Europe’s Mars Express probe measured 15.5 parts per billion in the atmosphere above the Gale Crater on June 16, 2013. The presence of methane in the vicinity was confirmed by readings taken 24 hours earlier by NASA’s Curiosity rover.
Using the data, Giuranna and the team divided the region around the crater into grids of 250 by 250 square kilometers.
One study then ran a million computer-modelled emissions scenarios for each section while another team studied images of the planet surface for features associated on Earth with the release of methane.

The most likely source was a sheet of frozen methane beneath a rock formation, which the team believes periodically ejects the gas into the atmosphere.
Giuranna said that while methane is a sign of life on Earth, its presence on Mars doesn’t necessarily constitute evidence of something similar on the Red Planet.
“Methane is important because it could be an indicator of microbial life,” he said. “But life is not required to explain these detections because methane can be produced by abiotic processes.”
“Though not a direct biosignature of life, methane can add to the habitability of martian settings, as certain types of microbes can use methane as a source of carbon and energy,” he added.
Though there is no liquid water on Mars, the European Space Agency said in February its imaging equipment had shown further evidence of dried up river beds, suggesting the Red Planet may once have been home to simple organisms.
Giuranna said that further research was needed to determine the extent of the methane ice sheet near Gale Crater.
If founded to be extensive, the methane it contains “could support a sustained human presence” on Mars as a possible source of fuel for industrial processes and a propellant for returning manned missions to Earth, he said.


China’s tech titans fight for cloud control

Updated 04 July 2020

China’s tech titans fight for cloud control

  • Tencent flexes its muscles in race with arch-rival Alibaba as pandemic opens new business frontiers

HONG KONG: For Chinese cloud services companies, the coronavirus outbreak has become a rainmaker, bringing in new business far and wide as firms shift work online, and authorities develop apps and systems to help contain outbreaks and manage social restrictions.

For Tencent Holdings, in particular, it has also become the perfect time to flex new muscles as it seeks to catch up with Alibaba Group Holding, its arch-rival and the dominant player in the country’s cloud market by far.

Tencent began to display a new level of aggressiveness after positioning its cloud business as a major area of growth in September 2018, and that has only amped up amid the pandemic, employees say.

“The competition with Alibaba is so fierce right now, the sales teams are fighting them for every deal,” said a source in Tencent’s cloud division who was not authorized to speak on the matter and declined to be identified.

This year alone, Tencent has hired more than 3,000 employees for its cloud division. And as China went into lockdown and demand for corporate video bandwidth surged in February, it added 100,000 cloud servers in eight days to support a two-month old product, Tencent Conference — a feat the company says is unprecedented in Chinese cloud computing history.

It has expanded use of cloud servers designed in-house, pledged to speed up construction of a digital industry center in Wuhan to handle cloud and smart city projects in central China and joined a central government initiative to support pandemic-hit small businesses with free cloud services.

The social media and gaming behemoth also announced in May it will invest 500 billion yuan ($70 billion) over five years in technology infrastructure including cloud computing — just weeks after Alibaba said it would invest 200 billion yuan in its cloud infrastructure over three years.

Poshu Yeung, vice president of Tencent’s international business group, notes huge interest in shifting further into the cloud from businesses and for online education.

“We actually see more demands, requests coming in,” he said in an interview in April. “It’s a good wakening call for a lot of businesses.”

During the first quarter, China’s cloud infrastructure services market grew an impressive 67 percent from a year earlier to $3.9 billion, data from research firm Canalys shows.

Alibaba commanded 44.5 percent of the market while Tencent, which started its cloud business in 2013, four years after Alibaba, had just 14 percent. Huawei Technologies also had 14 percent.

“Although Tencent came to the space later than Alibaba, I believe the company is willing to endure a relatively long period of investment cycle for this business, hoping to catch up or one day becoming the No. 1 player in this field,” said Alex Liu, tech analyst at China Renaissance.

Tencent’s cloud division accounted for more than 4.5 percent of its annual revenue last year while Alibaba’s cloud computing division accounted for 8 percent of its overall revenue.

Tencent employees have told Reuters the company is working hard to become more adept in business-to-business sales where products are often designed from the ground up for one client, as well as in government relations.

 Those are areas where Alibaba excels while Tencent’s strength lies more with consumer-centric products and design.

“Tencent has great genes in business-to-consumer, but in business-to-business, we either didn’t have product managers or we just hired folks with a business-to-consumer background so it took a bit of time to convert their thinking,” said a second Tencent source in the company’s cloud business.

Tencent declined to comment on staff observations.

One area where Tencent has gained ground in recent years is government contracts — a relatively small part of the market in revenue terms but one that brings prestige and helps attract private-sector clients.

Underscoring its determination to win tenders, Tencent in 2017 offered to complete a Fujian province government information platform project for 0.01 yuan.

From 2016 to 2017, Alibaba scored 28 cloud-related contracts for government entities, state-owned enterprises, and academic institutions, while Tencent landed just seven, government procurement records show.

But in 2018, they secured 28 each before Alibaba took the lead again last year with 49 compared with Tencent’s 46.