NASA’s announcement earlier this week that they would be announcing some exciting results had Mars fans all over the world excited. With the rover Curiosity’s drill only recently being fixed, many were excited to find out what new information had been gleaned on the red planet. The group of NASA scientists were quick to shut down theories of finding life, but the information they did share was still pretty exciting.
NASA’s team at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) were able to find a cycle to the levels of methane on Mars. While that doesn’t sound like much the scientists behind that are actually incredibly excited about it. What that means is that they are now able to track what is normal and what is not when it comes to the gas. Chris Webster at JPL was instrumental in the discovery of methane spikes in the atmosphere and says that until this point it seemed like the methane on the planet was misbehaving. However according to him this new discovery shows:
a repeatable, identifiable discovery of seasonal passage in the methane measurements…. You can see from the winter to the summer there is growth and the big surprise is not only do we have this wonderful repeatability but the seasonal factor changes by a factor of 3….Now we have something to test our models and understanding against.
Still doesn’t sound all that exciting. Yeah. True. It gets exciting when you realize that 95% of methane on Earth is created by the biological processes of living beings. When you consider that along with the knowledge that methane only lasts for 300 years and it becomes easier to understand why NASA decided to make this announcement.
Weber does acknowledge that there is still more work to be done and that this constant of methane does not mean that there is any sort of biological life on Mars. It could come from the interaction of water with olivine rocks among other things. However examining it further, and hopefully finding and being near another large methane spike, will allow them to study the carbon-13 signature and gather a better, clearer understanding.
NASA first announced finding organic compounds on Mars back in 2014. This new announcement explains that the Curiosity rover is finding them in much higher amounts and from a much further back period in time. Being in the Gale Crater has allowed the rover to sample from sedimentary rock, rock layered from a time when there was running water on Mars. Each layer represents a different time period and Curiosity is pulling from one of the lowest layers of the mountain in the middle of the crater. That means the newly announced organic compounds are billions of years old.
Jen Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist with NASA Goddard, explained the SAM, the machine that runs the tests on the rocks that are drilled from the surface. She explained that the high heat from the testing, which vaporizes the rock allowing it to be analyzed, might be breaking the molecules down too far.
Because the hydrocarbons were released at such high temperatures they may be the fragments of bigger heavier molecules within the rocks, similar to kerogens. On Earth, kerogen are found in rocks like black shale and coal and are the products of ancient plant and bacteria….In the distant past Mars was much warmer and wetter than it is today. The rocks at Gale Crater tell us it was once an environment where life as we know it could have survived.
Like the rest of the scientist she takes pains to explain that this is only speculation and no where near confirmation that there is any sign of life on Mars. She does point out however, that they are only drilling about 5cms down into the Martian soil, while solar and cosmic radiation are capable of damaging material up to about a meter and a half. Which means that deeper down there may be more complete or larger fragments of organic compounds.
What’s Next For NASA And Mars?
The Curiosity rover is still functional and after some intense engineering and reprogramming from the team here on Earth, the drill is once again functional. That means that the rover will continue to do it’s experiments and search for new and exciting information from Mars. Eigenbrode pointed out that there are experiments on the rover that have no been used yet, so hopefully the conditions will be set to bring those experiments to fruition.
There are also two rover set for launch in 2020. NASA is helming one of them and the other will be run by the European Space Agency. These rovers will be carrying new technology and experiments to continue the search for possibly microbial life.