The science world jumped back in 2013 when NASA’s Curiosity apparently detected traces of methane on the red planet. However, the excitement of the discovery dissipation as the results was unable to be confirmed in the following years.
But that has all changed thanks to a re-analysis of the original data that shows methane is definitely detectable on Mars. The news confirms that Mars at least once had the right conditions to support life as we know it.
Sign of life
The independent paper published by today in Nature Geoscience was lead by Marco Giuranna from the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome, Italy.
Optimists will see the methane confirmation as a sign that microbial life was once present on Mars and that the fart-like gas is now being released from under its surface.
Methane doesn’t last long in the atmosphere, so any detection of the gas needs to be done quite quickly after it is released. In the case of Mars, it's most likely that the methane is escaping from beneath the planet’s surface.
Breakthrough research method
It's difficulty to detect constantly suggests the methane is being released in intermittent spikes. Because the presence of methane could provide compelling evidence of life on Mars, scientists have been careful with what they can scientifically confirm.
When the methane was first detected in 2013, despite the excitement surrounding the discovery, NASA did not confirm its presence due to the lack of correlating evidence. It can now finally become official thanks to the reanalysis of data collected by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter at the time.
Confirmation opens research possibilities
Data collected from the spacecraft’s onboard Planetary Fourier Spectrometer on June 16, 2013, correlates with the data from Curiosity the day before. The ESA says this is the first time that data from an orbiting spacecraft has been used to confirm data gathered from an on-ground vehicle.
“In general we did not detect any methane, aside from one definite detection of about 15 parts per billion by volume of methane in the atmosphere, which turned out to be a day after Curiosity reported a spike of about six parts per billion,” says Giuranna.
“Although parts per billion in general means a relatively small amount, it is quite remarkable for Mars – our measurement corresponds to an average of about 46 tonnes of methane that was present in the area of 49 000 square kilometers observed from our orbit.”
Not only does data from the express orbiter confirm the methane’s presence; it also casts more light on where it originated from. At the time of initial detection, it was suspected the methane was coming from north of the rover due to the winds at the time, but the new information suggests it was actually originated from inside the crater
“Our new Mars Express data, taken one day after Curiosity’s recording, change the interpretation of where the methane originated from, especially when considering global atmospheric circulation patterns together with the local geology,” adds Marco.
Scientists will now use this new data to examine other possible sites for methane release and locations of past and future life.