NASA's Curiosity rover finds new methane spike on Mars

Pablo Tucker
June 24, 2019

A NASA Mars rover has detected its largest amount of methane yet, which could be an early indication of life on the Red Planet. The data arrived back on Earth on Thursday, and by Friday, scientists working on the mission were excitedly discussing the news, which has not yet been announced by NASA. Still, there is the possibility that the methane is ancient, having been trapped under the surface of Mars for a long time and escaping through cracks. "Given this surprising result, we've reorganized the weekend to run a follow-up experiment", Ashwin R. Vasavada, project scientist of the mission, told the project's science team via email.

This image was taken by the left Navcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on June 18, 2019, the 2,440th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

The levels are three times higher than those detected in 2013.

Though Mars has no active volcanoes like on Earth, it is possible that methane is being released from geological processes, involving reactions of carbon from carbonate rocks or carbon dioxide, with hydrogen from liquid water.

Now Curiosity is sidelining other scientific work to seek more methane, which could be a sign of life. So new methane detected is presumed to be new or have been recently released. The gas seems to rise and fall with the red planet's seasons.

But although the robot's big onboard chemistry lab - the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument - can detect the gas's presence, it can say nothing about the source.

The term "parts per billion by volume" (ppbv, or ppb for short) means that in a given volume of air, some billionths of that volume will constitute the gas of interest.

Results from the additional experiment should be beamed-back and analysed today.

Curiosity's scientists need time to analyze these clues and conduct many more methane observations. They function fine, but the slightest traces of gas they found. It's not an entirely huge amount by earth standards, only "21 parts per billion units by volume" or ppbv. The newest measurements are 21 parts per billion.

Next year, two new rovers are scheduled for launch to Mars: NASA's Mars 2020 and the ESA/Roscosmos Rosalind Franklin.

Methane is an important molecule for microbes on Earth and its detection on another planet has led to speculation that microscopic alien microbes could be excreting the compound at significant enough rates for NASA to detect.

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