One of the signs that a planet may have once supported life is the presence of methane gas. While it can have inorganic causes, it’s most often due to decaying organic matter as it is on Earth. That’s why scientists have been searching for it in Mars – the one planet where we have both landers and orbiters constantly scanning the surface. While methane has been detected on the Red Planet, its source has never been pinpointed … until now.
“During its five years of operation, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) on board the Curiosity rover has detected six methane spikes above a low background abundance in Gale crater.”
While new rover on the block Perseverance and its ground-breaking (air-breaking?) Ingenuity helicopter have been getting all of the recent publicity, Curiosity has been trudging along and reliably doing its job since 2012. In that time, it has picked up six blips or ‘burps’ of methane in and around the Gale crater, a 96-mile impression in diameter impression dating back 3.8 billion years. However, it didn’t know the exact locations where the gas was emitted from the ground so it could rover over for a look. According to a new not-yet-peer-reviewed study published in Research Square, researchers at the California Institute of Technology decided to take a new approach – they modeled the methane gas particles where they were detected and split them into small groups. Using the wind speed and direction at the time of detection, along with geographic and topographical maps of the crater and its surrounding area, they were able to trace the methane ‘burps’ back to their belching points.
“Inside Gale crater, the northwestern crater floor casts the strongest influence on the detections. Outside Gale crater, the emission region with the strongest influence extends towards the north. The contrasting results from two consecutive methane measurements point to an active emission region to the west and the southwest of the Curiosity rover on the northwestern crater floor.”
Reviewing the data, Live Science points out that one of those locations is just a few dozen miles from Curiosity’s current location. While that may not seem very far, Curiosity has only traveled about 15.7 miles in total since it landed in 2012. The European Space Agency's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) is constantly looking for methane, but it has been unable to detect those recorded by Curiosity. This could change with these new coordinates. However, it would be ideal if Curiosity could get an up-close look or sniff. Methane has a 330-year lifespan, so this could be life existed just a few centuries ago … and perhaps is still there producing it today.
Before you ask, Perseverance is about 2,300 miles from Curiosity – to far to travel or send the Ingenuity helicopter. Perseverance has different instruments and missions, but Curiosity’s data can still help it find methane, if it’s being emitted nearby and hasn’t been blown away by Ingenuity. The first manned Mars mission can’t come soon enough.
And yes … the Alien Methane Burps would be a good band name.