Nasa's Curiosity rover detects methane in latest hint at life on Mars

24 Juin, 2019, 11:51 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars in June 2018

NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars has made yet another discovery about the Red Planet - it has methane gas on it. Project scientist Ashwin R. Vasavada told the Curiosity science team in an email that "Given this surprising result, we've reorganized the weekend to run a follow-up experiment", the Times wrote. The e-mail is said to have been obtained by The Times.

But the Trace Gas Orbiter, a newer European spacecraft launched in 2016 with more sensitive instruments, did not detect any methane at all in its first batch of scientific observations previous year. The new instructions aim to further explain the result of the initial readings. A new analysis of old Mars Express readings confirmed Curiosity's 2013 findings.

The data hints at an even greater discovery - life on Mars - because methane is often generated by underground microbes, known as methanogens, which can survive without oxygen.

It is possible that the methane is a result of geothermal reactions that have nothing to do with living organisms.

Another plausibility is that the methane has an ancient origin, where it has been locked inside Mars for millions of years and occasionally escaping through cracks. Spikes in Mars' methane levels aren't unusual, with a study reporting last June on seasonal variations in the molecule's atmospheric concentration. The report said that the Red Planet's atmosphere is so thin that sunlight and other chemical reactions could have easily broken up the gas.

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Therefore any methane detected now by NASA must have been recently released. Either way, finding the true source of that much methane was exciting enough for the scientists to spend their weekend going over the data and performing further tests.

Scientists first reported detections of methane on Mars a decade and a half ago using measurements from Mars Express, an orbiting spacecraft built by the European Space Agency and is still in operation, as well as from telescopes on Earth. The early figures were not conclusive, however, and some scientists believe that there was actually no methane detected.

In 2012, after the Curiosity landed on Mars and was sent out in search of methane, it was said to have turned up empty-handed, with findings of less than one part per billion in the planet's atmosphere. In 2013, it was able to record a sudden spike of seven in one billion but the gas eventually ebbed away. While that is not new, it is the first time it has been found in such large amounts - about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv).

An image of Mars' Nili Fossae region taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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