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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Follow the Methane

Follow the Methane

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Thursday, June 7, 2018/Categories: natural history, space science, sustainability, art and design, environment, adventure

         3-Year Seasonal Fluctuations in Methane in Gale Crater, Mars (credit: Curiosity Rover/JPL)

When trying to identify a culprit in an investigation the old adage of follow the money is applied. If you're looking for life on another planet, the adage might need to be follow the methane. On Earth this atmospheric gas most often results from ongoing biological activity. In what is a major step in potentially detecting current life forms on Mars, CalTect's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is now reported two chemistry discoveries made by the Curiosity rover including surface methane measurements. According to their annoucement, researchers at the Lab report:

"new findings of 'tough' organic molecules in 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface of Gale Crater, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere".

The Curiosity rover carries an instrument called the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) to detect atmospheric constitutents in Gale Crater. The instrument gathered signals for methane over three Martian years (nearly six Earth years), that peaked during the Martian summer. NASA's associate administrator of science missions that reviewed the JPL findings in Science:

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet."

Methane dissipates within a brief time so something is replenishing the gas on a consistent basis. While the new findings indicate fluctuations in methane presence, the Curiosity rover doesn't carry instruments that can determine the source of the gas or its atomic structure. The European Space Agency's InSight lander is currently enroute to Mars, hopefully to safely land later this year, and this lander carries instruments that should be able to determine the molecular composition and if it is of geological or biological origin.

Finger's crossed that the adage of follow the methane detects biological a 'pot of gold' at the end of a Martian rainbow.

WHB

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