Methane spike found on Mars

The discovery renews hopes of finding life on the Red Planet


There are many ways that methane may be added or removed from the Martian atmosphere.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

Methane in Mars’s atmosphere spiked for several months, according to readings taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover. Along with the discovery that the planet’s surface contains other organic molecules, scientists have renewed their hopes of finding life on the supposedly barren world.

When Curiosity first landed on Mars it detected methane levels of only 0.7 parts per billion (ppb). On Earth, methane levels measure 1800ppb, almost all of which is produced by biological process on the planet. The initial low Martian levels were thought to indicate that there were no biological processes happening on Mars, meaning the chances of finding life looked grim.

However in late 2013, the methane levels on Mars jumped to ten times the previous value. This spike lasted for two months, before falling again in early 2014.

“This temporary increase in methane ­­– sharply up and then back down – tells us there must be some relatively localised source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

The discovery was announced alongside the news that samples drilled from the planet’s surface have been found to contain organic compounds. However it is unclear where exactly these compounds came from. While many are hoping that the increase of methane could be a sign that Curiosity passed through an area filled with Martian microbes there are many other possibilities. The organic chemicals could be from geological processes, or even have been delivered to the surface by meteorites.

To pin down where these compounds come from, and what their presence means with regards to finding life on other planets, Curiosity and future Mars rovers will continue searching the alien landscape for more signs of these compounds.

“This first confirmation of organic carbon in a rock on Mars holds much promise,” said Curiosity participating scientist Roger Summons of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “The challenge now is to find other rocks on Mount Sharp that might have different and more extensive inventories of organic compounds.”


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