NASA’s Curiosity rover detects methane ‘burps’ on Mars

The Mars Curiosity rover has detected sharp spikes in the levels of the organic chemical methane on the Red Planet.

95 per cent of the methane gas on Earth comes from microbial organisms, so this new discovery could shed light on the possibility that life once existed on ancient Mars.

However, the Curiosity team don’t yet know the source of the planet’s methane. Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team said: “This temporary increase in methane, sharply up and then back down, tells us there must be some relatively localised source. There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

The team are now working on finding out exactly where the methane is coming from, but the diagram below illustrates the many possible ways methane might be added to Mars’s atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks).

POssibel sources of methane on Mars

This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars’ atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

Discover more secrets of space in the latest issue of How It Works magazine. In issue 67, learn all about the Moon, including how it formed and how humans first walked on its surface.