NASA’s Curiosity Rover Detects ‘Methane Spikes’ That Could Indicate Life On Mars

'Curiosity' on Martian surface (Credit: NASA)

Commenting on finding life throughout the universe, the late Carl Sagan highlighted: the possible key to identifying life on distant planetary bodies could be through the detection of organic chemicals, such as methane. In line with this statement, NASA have reported that methane ‘spikes’ have been detected by their Curiosity rover on its latest mission (16/12/2014)—methane signatures have been picked up from powder samples, created by the rover’s ‘rock sampling drill’, during routine research explorations.

The gas spikes could originate from unknown organic lifeforms, like Sagan suggested, although caution must be maintained: There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock’, said Ann Arbor of the Curiosity team. This latest NASA announcement is exciting news, although more time will be needed to ascertain the source of the readings.

Martian methane spikes are not new, and have been detected before by Curiosity: over a two month period, between 2013/14, four seperate vapour measurements registered sharp rises in methane signatures during rock sampling.

Other types of organic chemicals, additional to methane, have also been identified. As NASA points out, although these initial signs are intriguing, ‘organic molecules, which contain carbon and usually hydrogen, are chemical building blocks of life, although they can exist without the presence of life. Curiosity’s findings from analyzing samples of atmosphere and rock powder do not reveal whether Mars has ever harbored living microbes, but the findings do shed light on a chemically active modern Mars and on favorable conditions for life on ancient Mars.’

'Cumberland' rock: source of detected organic chemicals (Credit: NASA)

The ‘Cumberland’ rock: source of detected organic chemicals in 2013/14 (Credit: NASA)

Time is too early to say whether organic life has finally been found on Mars, although ‘we will keep working on the puzzles these findings present’, said John Grotzinger, Curiosity project scientist.

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Paul Hattle

As a strong advocate for science and learning, I am a passionate supporter of the 'Campaign for Science and Engineering' (CaSE) Fellow of the 'Royal Astronomical Society' (RAS) Associate Member of the 'Institute of Physics' (IOP) & 'The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators' (ISTC)

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