US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — In the course of measurements made on Wednesday, June 19, NASA’s Curiosity rover discovered an incredibly high level of methane emission – the gas that living organisms normally emit on Earth – on the surface of Mars. These data were obtained on Earth on Thursday, June 20, and by Friday, scientists involved in the mission of the rover, actively discussed the news, without waiting for the official announcement of NASA.
“Based on these amazing results, we changed our plans for the weekend to conduct an additional experiment,” wrote Ashwin Vasavada, head of the scientific team of the Curiosity rover, in an email to a group of scientists.
On Friday, June 21, mission specialists on Earth sent new instructions to the rover to get additional data, canceling previously planned studies. It is expected that new data will be received on Monday, June 24.
People have long been inspired by the likelihood of having life on Mars. But in the 1970s, Viking devices took pictures of the desert landscape of the planet. Two decades later, planetologists suggested that about 4 billion years ago, Mars was a warmer, wetter and more livable planet. Now they are considering the hypothesis that, if life was once on Mars, the microorganisms left after it could migrate deep into its bowels and survive there.
Methane, if it is actually present in the atmosphere of Mars, is an important indicator, because as a result of chemical reactions and exposure to sunlight, methane molecules must decay within several centuries. That is, methane, which the rover has discovered now, should have been released relatively recently.
On Earth, microbes called methanogens live in places where there is little or no oxygen, that is, deep underground or in the digestive tract of animals. These microorganisms emit methane. However, methane is also formed as a result of geothermal reactions, which are in no way associated with biology.
It is also possible that this methane was located deep below the surface of Mars for millions of years and that it periodically entered the atmosphere through cracks.
NASA confirmed the discovery of methane in the atmosphere of Mars on Saturday afternoon, calling it “preliminary scientific evidence.”
A NASA representative added: “To ensure scientific credibility, project specialists will continue to analyze the data before confirming the results.”
Scientists first reported the discovery of methane on Mars 15 years ago, citing data obtained from the Mars Express, which was built by the European Space Agency and still remains operational, as well as from telescopes on Earth. However, those data were obtained using tools that worked to the limit, and many scientists decided that the data on the presence of methane could be a mirage or the result of an error.
When the Curiosity arrived in Mars in 2012, it was looking for methane, but found nothing. Then in 2013, he recorded a sudden sharp increase in the level of methane in the atmosphere – up to 7 particles per billion – which lasted for at least two months.
Then its concentration decreased again.
According to data obtained this week, the concentration of methane was 21 particles per billion – this is three times more than in 2013.
Scientists have long been studying the mystery of methane on Mars.
Curiosity mission experts have developed a method that allows the rover to detect lower concentrations of methane using existing tools. There is an assumption that the amount of methane in the atmosphere of Mars varies depending on the season on this planet. A new analysis of the data received from the Mars Express apparatus confirmed the data obtained with Curiosity in 2013. A day after Curiosity announced a jump in methane concentration, this orbital device, flying over the place where the rover is located, also recorded an increase in concentration.
However, the Trace Gas Orbiter, a newer European device launched in 2016 and with more sensitive sensors, did not detect methane in the Martian atmosphere last year at all.
Marco Giuranna, a fellow at the National Institute of Astrophysics in Italy, responsible for measuring methane concentration with the Mars Express, said scientists at the Curiosity, Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter missions are actively discussing the data they’ve just received. He confirmed that he was informed that the concentration of methane was 21 particles per billion, but added that these data are still preliminary.
According to him, the Mars Express passed over the Gale crater – a 155-kilometer wide crater that studies the Curiosity apparatus – on the same day that the rover transmitted new data to Earth. Juranna said that they also have data obtained earlier, including data transmitted by the Trace Gas Orbiter.
“A huge amount of data needs to be processed,” he noted in his email. “I will have preliminary results next week.”
The devices that will be launched next year — one by NASA, the other by a joint Russian-European project — will be equipped with tools capable of looking for structural elements of life, although not one of them can accurately answer the question of Is there life on Mars today?
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