Large Methane Spike on Mars detected by NASA’s Curiosity

mars curiosity drill site
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at the "Rock Hall" drill site, located on Vera Rubin Ridge. (Credits - NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Curiosity made the strongest detection of methane on Mars last week. The laser spectrometer instrument detected a spike of 21 parts per billion by volume (ppbv) in the Gale Crater. Mars has a presence of 10ppbv methane on an average and scientists are trying to find the reason behind high concentration than usual. We know that methane can be produced by micro-organisms also and that is why we are trying to find out the source of this spike as it may imply the presence of micro-organisms.

Paul Mahaffy, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center said that using the current measurements they can’t say if the source of methane is biology or geology or ancient or modern. Curiosity and other instruments have detected few methane elements over past years but levels rise and fall and methane seem to appear and again disappear like an alien. On Earth, we have methane’s amount as nearly 1800 ppbv in the atmosphere as measured in the year 2011 and out of the amount of methane’s ppbv, about 90 to 95 percent is caused due to the living or dead creatures. 

When the researchers looked in the solar system they found that there were plenty of other ways for the generation of methane other than biological reasons. They found out that methane can also be generated using the geological processes and there can be the generation of methane abiotically that is without the presence of life. On planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, plenty of methane have emerged through chemical reactions.

Though methane’s generation is not rare in the solar system we know that Earth is the only planet which has biological processes. Pluto has methane ice whereas Titan which is Saturn’s moon has lakes of liquid methane. So the scientists can’t easily conclude that the amount of methane produced in Mars is due to the presence of living creatures or not.

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has the ability to detect almost 50 parts of methane per trillion by volume in the Martian Atmosphere and has been collecting data but is still empty-handed only.

The observations undergoing will help to figure out the detection and NASA will get more data if the gas was transient or local to Gale Crater and they have also kept contact with Trace Gas Orbiter team to see if the observation were same which would help in locating the source of gas and calculate the time it lasts in atmosphere.


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