NASA discovers a new mystery on Mars that may hint at life
The Mars Rover has detected fluctuating traces of methane on the Red Planet, a possible sign of life. NASA announced the findings at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union, according to Scientific American, but the organization does not have an explanation as to why or how the methane got there.
The Rover is currently exploring the Gale Crater, a site that the Rover recently confirmed once contained massive amounts of water over the course of millions of years. The background methane level on Mars is typically less than one part per billion by volume in the atmosphere. Four times over the course of the last two months, however, the Rover has registered levels of methane that are ten times higher than the average.
NASA believes that the traces of methane are coming from somewhere north of Curiosity’s current location, and winds are carrying them to the Rover. The discovery completely contradicts Curiosity’s results from a year ago. That initial study scanned Mars for one-third of a Martian year, and came away with no average and expected methane readings.
“Most of the methane on Earth is produced by biology, and the hope has been that ‘methane on Mars’ could be reduced to ‘life on Mars,’” Chris Webster, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said. “But we cannot yet distinguish whether the high methane levels we’re seeing are being produced geochemically or biologically.”
The current results come from study over the course of an entire Martian year, which is equivalent to just shy of 687 Earth days. The amount of methane discovered equates to roughly 200 metric tons of methane in the Martian atmosphere. That’s a small amount compared to Earth’s half a billion metric tons in the atmosphere, but it is still a major discovery.
The mystery comes from where the methane is coming from. On Earth, methane primarily comes from anaerobic bacteria living in low-oxygen environments. The previously detected trace amounts of methane on Mars could be the result of ultraviolet light striking carbon-rich meteorite debris, but this doesn’t explain the spikes that Curiosity recently discovered.
One theory is that the spikes aren’t the result of increased methane throughout the atmosphere, but rather a few, much larger methane deposits somewhere else on the planet that have drifted on the wind and reached the Rover. Unfortunately, Curiosity may not be equipped to solve this mystery.
The Rover is designed to search and see if life existed on ancient Mars, not Mars as it is today. It may be down to future explorations of Mars to determine the source of this methane.
Even if it takes years to properly investigate the methane emissions, the interest in Mars continues to grow. As the Rover continues to make new discoveries, the reasons to send a manned mission to Mars increase. NASA continues to prepare for that, and the recent Orion Spacecraft launch was a step towards that goal.