NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected surprisingly high amounts of methane gas on Mars, leading scientists to schedule a follow-up experiment.
These unanticipated levels of methane were noted after the rover took measurements on the red planet on Wednesday, June 19. 21 parts per billion of methane gas were found in the Martian air, three times the amount discovered during a 2013 measurement.
Significantly, methane is usually produced by living entities, meaning this large amount of gas could suggest the presence of living microbes on Mars.
Project scientist for the mission, Ashwin R. Vasavada, reportedly made the following comments in an email obtained by The New York Times:
Given this surprising result, we’ve reorganized the weekend to run a follow-up experiment.
The fascinating data reached earth on Thursday. By Friday, mission’s controllers had sent new instructions to the rover to follow up on these intriguing readings, with the results expected back by Monday, June 24.
As exciting as these findings must be for those working with NASA’s Curiosity rover, NASA scientists have cautioned how this is still ‘an early science result’.
Associate Administrator at the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, tweeted about how further analysis is required before any results can be confirmed:
While increased methane levels measured by @MarsCuriosity are exciting, as possible indicators for life, it’s important to remember this is an early science result. To maintain scientific integrity, the #science team will continue to analyze the data before confirming results.
While increased methane levels measured by @MarsCuriosity are exciting, as possible indicators for life, it’s important to remember this is an early science result. To maintain scientific integrity, the #science team will continue to analyze the data before confirming results. pic.twitter.com/zSrONQHuc5
— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) June 22, 2019
Zurbuchen continued to explain how methane is sometimes a ‘sign of geology rather than biology’, meaning this is no way a confirmation of the existence of little green men:
We don’t yet know where methane on Mars comes from. A leading idea is that methane on Mars is being released from underground reservoirs created by past biology. But sometimes, methane is a sign of geology rather than biology.
Methane gas in the air of Mars is significant, as sunlight and chemical reactions would have broken up the gas molecules within a few hundred years. Therefore, any methane gases detected may well have been released relatively recently.
However, as noted by The New York Times, these could well be ancient methane gases which are only now just bursting through the cracks on the surface of Mars.
Could it be there’s life on Mars after all?
Well, for those of you who aren’t convinced by the presence of methane gas, there’s always the photographs snapped by the Curiosity rover on June 16, which appear to show a hovering glow or light some might say is in the shape of your standard sci-fi UFO.
In 2014, when a similar light was captured by one of the rover’s 17 cameras, Justin Maki, leader of the team that built and operates Curiosity’s Navcams, gave a really boring factually accurate explanation.
Defying the conspiracy theories, he said:
In the thousands of images we’ve received from Curiosity, we see ones with bright spots nearly every week. These can be caused by cosmic-ray hits or sunlight glinting from rock surfaces, as the most likely explanations.
Bowie would be disappointed.
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Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.