NASA’s Curiosity rover records significant spikes in methane levels on Mars

Posted by ap507 at Dec 17, 2014 03:55 PM |
University of Leicester involved in data analysis of study which could shed light on the possibility of life existing on the planet

Dr John Bridges (pictured) from the Department of Physics and Astronomy is co-author on a new paper published in the journal Science, suggesting that methane readings far exceed background levels and are ten times higher than those obtained during previous spikes.

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has measured methane in the atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory's drill.

Researchers used Curiosity's onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory a dozen times in a 20-month period to sniff methane in the atmosphere. During two of those months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion. Before and after that, readings averaged only one-tenth that level.

Curiosity also detected different Martian organic chemicals in powder drilled from a rock dubbed Cumberland, the first definitive detection of organics in surface materials of Mars. These Martian organics could either have formed on Mars or been delivered to Mars by meteorites.

Dr Bridges said: “By using compositional data from the X-ray spectrometer on the Curiosity rover, I and my collaborator from the Open University, Dr Susanne Schwenzer, have tested whether there is any link between the composition of the rocks that the rover was driving over and the methane releases.

“We established that the methane was not released from the underlying rocks (or equipment on the Rover), consistent with there being an unidentified source of methane on Mars causing localised peaks in methane abundance.

“This remarkable finding gives added importance to the upcoming 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter, which is designed to look for traces of organics like methane in the Mars atmosphere and take images of the Mars surface at different seasons.  There are a variety of ways that methane can be produced, and understanding the near surface reservoirs of methane on Mars will lead us to understanding when and how it formed.”

Organic molecules, which contain carbon and usually hydrogen, are chemical building blocks of life, although they can exist without the presence of life.

Curiosity's findings from analysing samples of atmosphere and rock powder do not reveal whether Mars has ever harbored living microbes, but the findings do shed light on a chemically active modern Mars and on favorable conditions for life on ancient Mars.

Click here for copies of the new Science papers about Mars methane and water.