Mars Curiosity Detects High Methane Levels Which Could Be Life

This week, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover found a surprising result: the largest amount of methane ever measured during the mission — about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv). One ppbv means that if you take a volume of air on Mars, one billionth of the volume of air is methane.

The finding came from the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) tunable laser spectrometer. It’s exciting because microbial life is an important source of methane on Earth, but methane can also be created through interactions between rocks and water.

Curiosity doesn’t have instruments that can definitively say what the source of the methane is, or even if it’s coming from a local source within Gale Crater or elsewhere on the planet.

“With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The Curiosity team has detected methane many times over the course of the mission. Previous papers have documented how background levels of the gas seem to rise and fall seasonally. They’ve also noted sudden spikes of methane, but the science team knows very little about how long these transient plumes last or why they’re different from the seasonal patterns.

The SAM team organized a different experiment for this weekend to gather more information on what might be a transient plume. Whatever they find — even if it’s an absence of methane — will add context to the recent measurement.

Curiosity’s scientists need time to analyze these clues and conduct many more methane observations. They also need time to collaborate with other science teams, including those with the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been in its science orbit for a little over a year without detecting any methane. Combining observations from the surface and from orbit could help scientists locate sources of the gas on the planet and understand how long it lasts in the Martian atmosphere. That might explain why the Trace Gas Orbiter’s and Curiosity’s methane observations have been so different.

27 thoughts on “Mars Curiosity Detects High Methane Levels Which Could Be Life”

  1. Even though the surface of Mars seems a pretty tough environment to find life does not mean that the interior of Mars is lifeless. Deep under the surface of Mars it could be wet and warm, the idea environment for life.

    If fact, I think it may even be possible that deep down in the Moon interior that water could be found.

  2. Doubtful, the Martian bacteria would have had to evolve the ability to infect Earth life form. I doubt that can happen in a vacuum.

  3. I don’t know what “resources” they had in mind, but technically speaking, resources aren’t constrained to the surface, nor even to rocky bodies. Furthermore, exploitable resources depend on the available technology. That’s why accurate inventory and technological context are important, as I’ve noted.

    But the overall approach of using “3 doublings away from exhaustion” as the point to begin transitioning to more steady-state economics, does hold IMO. Though a better metric would be number of decades before exhaustion. Doubling time matters.

  4. If you’re talking an 8th of the surface area of rocky bodies in the Solar system, then they’re basically suggesting that maybe we get to keep Earth.

  5. The best case scenario is that they’re similar enough to Earth biology to be within the scope of what triggers our immune systems, while being alien enough to have no evolved resistance to our defenses.

    The worse case scenario is that they’re alien enough to Earth biology that our immune systems simply don’t “see” them, while their own digestive processes are general enough to eat us.

    If it’s Earth descended life, (Or Earth life is Mars descended!) the first scenario strikes me as the more likely.

  6. In defense of the link you added, it does make sense to consider exponential growth when managing limited resource reserves. They’re suggesting to treat 1/8th of all available resources (3 doublings before full exhaustion) as the cut-off point where we’ll need to begin transitioning from exponential growth to a more steady state. I think that’s reasonable.

    1/8th of all the solar system resources is still a lot, and they’re not advocating an outright ban on space development (at least not in the portion that I read).

    My main criticism for this particular article is that by the time we reach such exploitation levels, we may no longer be confined to the Solar System. Of course, there are other issues like how do you accurately inventory all of the resources, technological and political contexts, etc. The doubling time is also an important metric.

  7. Did the anti-nuke activists have enough political power to make any difference? Despite being nuttier than fruitcakes, and objectively wrong about almost everything?

  8. The common argument for that is we’d have no resistance to the weird new bacteria. I say they’d have no resistance to *us*. Acidic stomachs, warm temperatures, and an immune system? They’ll never have encountered anything like us.

  9. I think it calls for a second rover in the area. That way it might be possible to triangulate where the source of the methane is and answer all our questions. Maybe a second rover with a microscope.

  10. Do they have enough political power to make any difference? If not, then I don’t need to. And like I said, plenty of other rocks.

  11. Plenty of other dead rocks besides Mars. One is hanging right over our heads every night. In the long run, we’d be better off learning to build colonies in deep space than on planets anyway. But in the mean time, if we can mange clean rooms for electronics on Earth, we can manage to quarantine certain areas of Mars for scientific study. There’s no need to quarantine all of it even if we do find some microbes.

  12. See. People eat that possibility up. Endless wonder for the barren red rock. Even Disney movies like John Carter. You’re aiming low with microbes.

  13. The SURFACE of Mars is virtually certain to be dead – UV, solar wind, perchlorates, etc. But they might have found micro-fossils?

  14. Why hasn’t a single Mars lander included a microscopy experiment yet? It’s absurd. Just look and see if there’s anything moving around.

  15. I suppose – but smashing it compared to what? We can like the results while still wondering if more could be done for the same budget.

  16. Yeah, if some strain of bacteria is found over there, even imported from Earth, the cries for “leave it alone forevah!” will be deafening.

    There is already a worrisome amount of people claiming that any kind of space travel is a waste, or worse, an offense to some imagined intrinsic value of dead rocks, to add some remotely justifiable preservation worries over a dead or dying ancient ecosystem.

    Me too, I’d prefer there is not even a single bacteria over there. But given the proximity and multiple exchanges of matter the Solar System planets have had in their long history, I won’t be surprised in some bacteria had actually made the jump.

  17. I’m of two minds about this: On the one hand, extra terrestrial life would be facinating, and might dramatically expand our understanding of biology, particularly if it wasn’t closely related to Earth life. Probably would be, though, given the exchange of material between Earth and Mars.

    OTOH, the pressure to leave Mars alone if it proved to have any native life at all would be immense. And we really need to establish up front that the rest of the universe isn’t going to be treated as some kind of museum piece, it’s a place to live, not just study.

  18. It could be life, but that does not mean life is likely.
    There are a few, more likely, non-life pathways like serpentinization of olivine.

  19. Not NASA, Bezos. O’Neill used 70’s tech for design reference. EmDrive, not so. There have also been advances. See Al Globus papers at nss for more info. The O’Neill plans you are probably thinking of are NOT the first things built, or plan fails. Once you realize that we do NOT want to be on planets, things will get clear.

  20. You think there is some possibility NASA would build an O’Neill cylinder?
    Building a working EmDrive is more plausible.

  21. If Mars ever had life it should still be there. I expect that it would be deep underground where it is still warm and moist.

  22. 1 part per billion is pretty difficult to visualize. A couple clues: a billionth of 1 cubic meter is 1 cubic millimeter; and 1 billion seconds is about 30 years.

  23. How does one spell “quarantine”? Another reason to forget Mars. G. K. O’Neill/Bezos clearly a better plan.

  24. Say what you like about NASA’s launch vehicle projects and their ISS, but when it comes to making things like the Mars rovers they are still smashing it out of the ballpark.

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