Curiosity Rover Detected Methane on Mars in 2013, a New Analysis Confirms

Mindy Sparks
April 3, 2019

A European spacecraft has confirmed a report of methane being released from the surface of Mars. Long periods of time have passed without any methane being detected in the atmosphere at all.

The icing on the cake, Marco Giuranna's team believes to have managed to locate the source of this methane emission in a fault area east of the crater Gale. Since then, it has found evidence of seasonal variations in methane, with levels of the gas rising and falling with the Martian summers and winters.

The source of methane on Mars might be microbial life... On gas and ice giants such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, plenty of methane is produced via chemical processes.

A reanalysis of data collected by ESA's Mars Express during the first 20 months of NASA's Curiosity mission found one case of correlated methane detection, the first time an in-situ measurement has been independently confirmed from orbit.

"Our finding constitutes the first independent confirmation of a methane detection", Giuranna said. The next day, ESA's Mars Express probe captured air samples with a methane concentration of 15.5 parts per billion as it whizzed through the atmosphere above Gale Crater.

Methane is only supposed to have a very short lifetime in the Martian atmosphere, so detecting it there means it must have been released very recently.

The initial discovery of the methane emission by the Curiosity rover in June 2013 had been questioned by some experts.

This does not mean, of course, that there definitely are flatulent aliens on the Red Planet - but it's a potential sign that Mars once had conditions suitable for life, or that microbes once existed there.

The scientists used the orbiter's planetary fourier spectrometer (PFS) to look for methane in and around Gale crater from December 2012 to July 2014. Scientists estimate periodic melting causes the ice to release the compound in gas form.

This process is well known on Earth to occur along tectonic faults and from natural gas fields. Geologists from Italy and the USA also carefully examined the region around the Gale crater for methane-releasing features. "Since permafrost is an excellent seal for methane, it is possible that the ice here could trap subsurface methane and release it episodically along the faults that break through this ice", said Giuseppe Etiope from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, a co-author on one of the studies. Methane can be made as a downstream product of serpentinisation.

"Despite various detection's reported by separate groups and different experiments, and although plausible mechanisms have been proposed to explain the observed abundance, variability and lifetime of methane in the current Martian atmosphere, the methane debate still splits the Mars community".

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