NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity has detected the presence of methane on Mars. The agency hasn’t officially announced the event yet but the New York Times published the information obtained. The detection happened on Wednesday, June 19, and was received by NASA the next day. On Friday, Curiosity mission’s scientists discussed the news reorganizing the weekend activities to carry out a follow-up experiment. There’s no evidence that it was produced by biological processes but methane detections on Mars are always of great interest to scientists.
It’s not the first time that the Mars Rover Curiosity detects methane on Mars, in some area of the Gale crater, where it’s been working for the almost seven years now spent on the red planet. In 2013 it detected a peak that reached 7 parts per billion that lasted at least two months but according to the information leaked last Wednesday’s detection is of 21 parts per billion. It could be a preliminary result according to the statement reported by the New York Times attributed to Marco Giuranna from the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics, part of ESA’s Mars Express mission team, who also worked on the methane problem and led a team that carried out a research on the subject, published in April 2019 in the journal “Nature Geoscience”.
It seems that this new detection was discussed by the Curiosity mission scientists with their colleagues from the Mars Express mission and ESA / Roscosmos’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) space probe’s mission, part of the ExoMars program, which hasn’t yet detected methane peaks in over two and a half years of mission. Mars Express went over the Gale crater the same day that the Mars Rover Curiosity made its detection so it’s possible that ESA’s space probe also detected something but they have a lot of data to process so it will take days to get the first answers. The experience accumulated in the analysis of data connected to the 2013 detections could help offer more complete answers.
The scientists working on the various missions involved in methane detections on Mars are always very excited by these events but at the same time very cautious. An unofficial news is enough for someone among the various media to announces the possible discovery of life forms on the red planet. There are geological processes that could have produced methane and understanding where it came from would help determine which process originated it. Even if it was produced by biological processes, it’s possible that it happened in a remote era and that the gas remained imprisoned underground before being released occasionally.
There are still many questions about the presence of methane on Mars and also about this new detection, so much so that NASA scientists want more data before issuing official announcements. Only when the Curiosity mission team but also the Mars Express mission team have analyzed the data collected they’ll see if progress has been made in understanding the origin of the detected methane.