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NASA’s Curiosity rover may solve the methane mystery on Mars


NASA’s Curiosity rover takes this selfie in 2020.


Methane on Earth is all about farts and cow burps. On Mars it’s a mystery. Scientists are puzzled by Martian methane readings. And NASA may be one step closer to finding out what happened to the gas on the Red Planet. It turns out that the time of day has a huge impact on methane detection.

Methane is particularly interesting because it is a byproduct of living organisms. including microorganisms Researchers are trying to find out whether Mars once hosted microbes, or whether microbes might survive there now. But don’t get too excited. Methane can also have a geological origin.

The strange thing about methane on the Red Planet is that NASA’s Curiosity rover detected near-surface gas in Gale Crater, but the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter did not find methane higher in the atmosphere. What happened?

Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer instrument is part of the analysis of samples at the Mars System, a portable chemistry laboratory. TLS typically detects small amounts of methane that NASA describes as “equivalent to a small amount of salt diluted in a swimming pool.” Olympic size” in 2019, TLS detects a particularly large number of increase in methane levels.

The ExoMars spacecraft, which arrived at Mars in 2016, didn’t see what Curiosity saw. I am absolutely shocked,” Chris Webster, the head of the TLS instrument, said in a NASA statement on Tuesday.

Discrepancies may occur during the time of day when spacecraft and probes operate. The power-hungry TLS on the rover operates at night. therefore does not conflict with other tools The spacecraft will detect during the day when sunlight helps. What might happen is a methane pool near the surface at night that is calm and dissipates during the day. make the spaceship invisible

The Curiosity team tested this idea by measuring methane in daylight. and the gas disappeared during the day. The researchers published their findings today in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics (PDF link).

Although one mystery of methane may have an explanation, But another mystery about methane remains. NASA is still trying to differentiate. “Global methane puzzle at Mars” The methane released from Martian craters should be stable enough. and accumulated in the atmosphere enough for detection by the Trace Gas Orbiter.

Scientists are looking at what might destroy methane. “We need to consider whether there is a faster-than-normal destructive mechanism to match the datasets from the rover and the spacecraft,” Webster said. until then Methane on Mars remains a mystery.

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