NASA's Martian rover Curiosity has found that the Red Planet has been producing significantly more methane than previously known. This finding has significant implications for the study of Mars, most notably the possibility that the planet is currently harboring life.
"Given this surprising result, we have reorganized the weekend to run a follow-up experiment," Ashwin R. Vasavada, the project scientist for the mission, wrote to the science team in an email obtained by The New York Times which reported the finding on June 22.
"With our current measurements, we have no "said Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Chief Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on June 23rd, in a press statement.
Understanding how much methane Curiosity finds a measurement known as parts per billion units by volume, or ppbv. One ppbv means that if one were to capture the volume of air on Mars, one billionth of the volume of air would be methane. Curiosity found 21
NASA is a preaching caution at the moment. "The Curiosity team has detected methane many times over the course of the mission," the agency's press statement says. "Previous papers have documented how background levels of gas seem to rise and fall seasonally."
None of them, the implication goes, has shown any sign of life. NASA told the Times that it considers Curiosity's findings a "early science result."
But it's hard not to be excited by the idea of methane, which is a potential biosignature of life. On Earth, naturally produced methane is often associated with lakes, swamps, natural gas reservoirs, and the digestive tracts of cows – all breeding grounds for life, even the tiniest microbial entities. Livestock has some of the greatest generators of methane, which might be a problem for Earth due to its nature as a greenhouse gas.
As the Times notes, methane in Martian air would be extraordinary because "sunlight and chemical reactions would break "
The tool that found methane is known as a SAM. The instrument takes up "more than half of the science payload on the Mars Science Laboratory rover," according to NASA, and features a suite of instruments including a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph, and a tunable laser spectrometer.