Mars may not be alive, but it’s not dead either.
Curiosity rover has detected traces of methane at the planet’s surface, as well as organic molecules in powdered rock samples drilled from about five centimetres below the surface.
The findings add important clues both to the Red Planet’s past and to its potential current activity. And while they don’t indicate there’s biological life on the planet, they do suggest Mars could be geologically alive.
The methane is one key indicator. Trace, transient amounts had been found before, but only sporadically and unpredictably. These new scan analyses show, over time, both a fingerprint and a pattern.
The NASA announcement in an online media conference this afternoon drew a clutch of planetary geologists and researchers to the Mission Control Room at the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at Western.
“The big deal is that methane only lasts for a short period of time and that source could either be abiotic (not from life) or biotic,” said Livio Tornabene, an Earth Science adjunct professor and part of the core team at CPSX. Tornabene, part of the Trace Gas Orbiter team searching specifically for methane, said it’s an encouraging find. “We’re not detecting mere methane spikes. It’s not random; it’s correlated to the seasons.”
On Earth, most methane comes from a biological source. But on Mars, without an atmosphere or magnetic field to speak of, finding methane or organic molecules is much less likely.
Curiosity has been on the planet since August 2012 and is a one-tonne robotic explorer and rolling laboratory that looks like a cross between a dune buggy and an oversized crab.
Space enthusiasts were surprised this week when NASA gave a day’s notification it would be revealing a significant discovery about the planet. That prompted some zealous Mars-watchers to speculate the rover had detected anything from ancient aliens to current signs of life.
While NASA’s timing almost certainly had more to do with the imminent release of two research papers in the journal Science, CPSX researchers eagerly gathered to learn how knowledge about the planet had suddenly expanded.
CPSX specialties include mapping Mars and discovering more about what lies in, on and under its surface.
Curiosity’s journey through the large Gale Crater has provided some answers to these mysteries. It has so far sent back information that Mars was once a warmer and wetter place, with a thicker atmosphere – an environment which could have nurtured life.
NASA prefaced this announcement by saying it had not found signs of life.
They had, however, found organic molecules, which is an important next step in potentially finding organic compounds.
“There were a lot of people who thought we weren’t going to find all the organic molecules that we did,” said NASA’s Jen Eigenbrode.
Three-billion-year-old rock sediments were baked at high heat to release any organics and volatile compounds, that could then be measured and analyzed.