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Mysterious methane on Mars: NASA has a new theory

Mysterious methane on Mars: NASA has a new theory

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The Mars Rover Curiosity welcomes you from the Red Planet with this adorable selfie. © AFP Newsletter NASA

NASA's Curiosity spacecraft repeatedly detects methane on Mars – a possible sign of life? A new study can now solve the mystery.

PASADENA – NASA's Curiosity rover has been wandering over Mars since 2012 and studying the red planet. The mobile robot has made many important discoveries over the years, but one still mystifies science to this day. Curiosity has repeatedly found traces of methane on Mars. Methane could be an indicator of current or past life on Mars, a possibility that science had not anticipated. But how can Curiosity's SAM detect methane so reproducibly?

There are more mysteries because methane doesn't always behave the same way. Sometimes it can be detected at night and disappears during the day, sometimes reaching levels 40 times higher than normal. Sometimes it varies depending on the season. But one thing methane does not do is that it does not accumulate in the atmosphere, otherwise the European Space Agency's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter space probe, which specializes in this, would have already discovered it.

Methane on Mars: What does NASA's Curiosity rover have to do with it?

“It's a story full of twists and turns,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A NASA research team has published a new study in the journal Planets that may shed light on the reason behind methane's strange behavior on Mars. The theory of the research team led by planetary scientist Alexander Pavlov is: the methane may have been “sealed” under solid salt beneath the surface of Mars. As temperatures rise on Mars, the “seal” may weaken and methane may leak out.

Another part of the answer could be “curiosity” itself. The rover, about the size of a small SUV, could damage “seals” as it moves across Mars, releasing methane. This would also explain why gas has so far only been discovered in Gale Crater, where Curiosity is located. However, the second currently active Mars rover, Perseverance, does not have an instrument to measure methane.

Curiosity can only search for methane on Mars a few times a year

The Curiosity SAM instrument searches for methane on Mars only a few times a year. The reason for this is to spend the remaining time on other tasks. “Methane experiments are very resource-intensive, so we have to be very strategic when we decide to do them,” says Charles Malespine, who is in charge of the SAM instrument. The main mission of SAM is to drill into Mars and analyze its chemical composition.

Although the research team's theory seems quite convincing, it is not yet clear where the methane comes from. The possibility that past or present life on Mars produces methane cannot yet be ruled out. (unpaid bill)