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Curiosity rover found biggest yet surge of methane on Mars

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Christian Fernsby ▼ | June 25, 2019
Rover Curiosity
World   Rover Curiosity

NASA's Curiosity rover found another surge of the potentially life-indicating gas methane on Mars, and this one is the biggest yet.

The six-wheeled robot detected methane levels around 21 parts per billion per unit volume (ppbv) last week inside the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater, NASA officials announced.

That's far higher than the normal background concentration at Gale, which Curiosity has determined ranges seasonally from about 0.24 ppbv to 0.65 ppbv.

The new result is exciting, because the vast majority of methane in Earth's air is generated by microbes and other organisms.

But we can't assume Martians were involved.

Methane can also be produced abiotically via the reaction of hot water with certain types of rock, for example.

"With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern," Paul Mahaffy, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

Mahaffy is principal investigator of Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which detected the recent surge.

The SAM team conducted a separate experiment over the weekend in an attempt to better understand this most recent methane spike, and perhaps get a better handle on the many mysteries swirling around the gas.

"Combining observations from the surface and from orbit could help scientists locate sources of the gas on the planet and understand how long it lasts in the Martian atmosphere," NASA officials said in the same statement.

"That might explain why the Trace Gas Orbiter's and Curiosity's methane observations have been so different."

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