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Curiosity sniffs a methane spike. Is that this an indication of life?

Since arriving on Mars in 2012, one among Curiosity's main scientific objectives has been to seek out proof of previous (and even current) life on the pink planet. In 2014, the rover might have completed this by detecting a tenfold improve in atmospheric methane within the neighborhood and discovering traces of complicated natural molecules in drill samples whereas he was poking by means of the Gale Crater.

A few 12 months in the past, Curiosity once more touched the soil by discovering natural molecules in three billion 12 months previous sedimentary rocks close to the floor of Mount Sharp. However final week, the Curiosity rover made an excellent deeper discovery by detecting the biggest quantity of methane ever measured on the floor of Mars – about 21 elements per billion models in quantity (ppbv).

Samples have been taken at a location known as "Teal Ridge", a bedrock outcrop that’s a part of the bigger space often called the "Clay Unit". The rover is on this ridge since mid-June within the hope of characterizing this uncommon characteristic, situated in the course of a sea of ​​sand and pebbles.

Picture taken by left Navcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars robotic on June 18, 2019, displaying a part of "Teal Ridge". Credit score: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The detection of methane was as soon as once more ensured by the SAM laser tuning spectrometer (Pattern Evaluation at Mars). However earlier than anybody is simply too excited, it's necessary to notice that scientists don’t but know what may very well be inflicting this methane. That is the thriller of Martian methane, which may very well be the results of microbes under the floor or interactions between rocks and water.

At current, the reason for methane and its true supply stay unknown, as Curiosity doesn’t have the instruments to reply these questions. "With our present measurements, we can’t know if the supply of methane is biology or geology, and even historical or fashionable," mentioned Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator SAM at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Heart.

Based mostly on earlier outcomes, scientists have found that ranges of atmospheric methane on Mars rise and fall seasonally. Sudden peaks of methane have additionally been noticed, which don’t look like seasonal and have an unknown period. To collect extra data and decide if this newest detection was an instance of panache exercise, the SAM workforce organized a methane monitoring experiment.

The outcomes of this experiment have been acquired on Monday morning (June 24th) and confirmed that methane ranges had strongly decreased to lower than 1 ppbv – which is near the background ranges commonly noticed by Curiosity. These outcomes recommend that what was seen final week was really a transient methane plume.

Doable methods wherein methane might enter and be faraway from the environment of Mars. Credit score: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SAM-GSFC / Univ. from Michigan

These discoveries have actually made it potential to characterize this final detection of methane, however they haven’t allowed us to raised establish an inclination to the incidence of transient plumes. Ashwin Vasavada, scientific director of the Curiosity venture at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, defined:

"The thriller of methane continues. We’re extra motivated than ever to proceed to measure and collect our brains to grasp the habits of methane within the Martian environment. "

Within the meantime, the Curiosity workforce will analyze the information obtained from these newest readings in hopes of acquiring extra clues on these points. They may also mix their findings with different mission groups which have detected methane on Mars, together with ESA's Hint Gasoline Orbiter, which has been in orbit for greater than a 12 months on the lookout for traces of methane.

As well as, when the Mars Rover 2020 lands on the Pink Planet, it’s going to search for methane sources with the assistance of an instrument known as SHERLOC, which stands for Scanning Liveable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Natural and Chemical Merchandise . This ultraviolet Raman spectrometer will use fine-scale imaging and an ultraviolet (UV) laser to additional analysis natural substances.

By combining measurements obtained from the floor with these obtained in orbit, scientists hope to raised perceive these plumes and their origin. As soon as executed, we are going to lastly be capable of decide what’s the supply of methane in Mars and whether or not or not it is a sign of previous or current life!

Additional studying: NASA

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