NASA Mars Curiosity Rover Ends the Debate of Methane on the Red Planet

First Posted: Feb 28, 2015 03:46 PM EST

New findings from the Mars Curiosity rover may hint that there may have been life in the planet's distant past. The tunable laser spectrometer in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument has detected an episodic increase in the concentration of methane in Mars' atmosphere.

Scientists have long debated whether or not methane was present in Mars' atmosphere. While it was first detected with telescopes from Earth, orbiting satellites gave contradicting results. Now this new data puts a lid on the debate.

Methane can actually be the product of biological activity. Practically all of the existing methane in Earth's atmosphere originates from living organisms. This could mean that the methane on Mars may have similar origins.

"It is a finding that puts paid to the question of the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, but it does pose some other more complex and far-reaching questions, such as the nature of its sources-which must lie, we believe, in one or two additional sources that were not originally contemplated in the models used so far," said Javier Martin-Torres, an author of the new article detailing the findings, in a news release. "Among these sources, we must not rule out biological methanogenesis. Another new question is related to the bizarre evolution of methane in the Martian atmosphere after its emission. Both questions should be addressed in the future with specifically designed new research."

While Curiosity has certainly answered one question, it's obvious that more remain. Now, scientists are planning on finding the origins of the methane. Already, the newly arrived MAVEN will study the atmosphere and its composition.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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