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Curiosity reveals the puzzling oxygen mystery of Mars



  sample of curious clay water
NASA's curiosity rover took this selfie on May 12, 2019 (2,405 Martian Day, or Sol, from the mission). NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

The NASA Curiosity rover continues to make discoveries that challenge our understanding of the Martian environment. The latest bizarre tax-taxing puzzle is the change in oxygen levels on the planet's surface, as Curiosity's portable chemistry lab, Mars Analysis (SAM), was discovered.

During his journey around the Gail Crater, curiosity found that the Martian atmosphere had a surface composition of 95 vol% carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1

.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2) and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). Nitrogen and argon levels follow a predictable seasonal pattern that varies with carbon dioxide. However, oxygen levels do not meet expected patterns, increasing by up to 30% in spring and summer.

  Oxygen Curiosity Level, Mars Seasonal Crater of the Galleries 1
Melissa Trainer / Dan Gallagher / NASA Goddard [19659004] Different oxygen levels upset scientists. "The first time we saw this was just mind-blowing," said Sushil Atreya, a professor of climate and space science at the University of Michigan.

Scientists have tried different hypotheses to explain the change in oxygen. They checked that the SAM instrument was working properly and looked at whether carbon dioxide molecules could break down into the atmosphere to generate oxygen, but neither approach worked.

"We're struggling to explain it," Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA's Godard Space Flight Center and head of research, said in a statement. "The fact that oxygen behavior does not repeat itself perfectly every season makes us think that this is not a problem with atmospheric dynamics. This must be some kind of chemical source and sinking that we cannot yet account for. "

One possibility is that oxygen levels are related to another Martian puzzle: Fluctuating methane levels on the planet. Like the expected seasonal fluctuations in methane levels, Curiosity has detected methane spikes of up to 60% in some cases. Scientists are still unable to explain this finding, but they may have found a connection between methane and oxygen levels: The two scales seem to fluctuate together at certain times.

"We are beginning to see this painful correlation between methane and oxygen. for a good part of the year of Mars, "Atreia said." I just have no answers yet. No one does. "

Although both oxygen and methane can be produced biologically, their presence does not necessarily mean life on the planet. They can be produced. and chemically, through water and rocks. Curiosity can only detect gas levels, not their origin, so the source of this mystery remains unknown for now.

The study was published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

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