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Curiosity Detects Mysterious Methane Spikes on Mars

A gas strongly associated with life on Earth has been detected again in the Martian atmosphere, opening a new chapter in a decade-old mystery about the on-again, off-again appearance of methane on Mars.

A gas strongly associated with life on Earth has been detected again in the Martian atmosphere, opening a new chapter in a decade-old mystery about the on-again, off-again appearance of methane on Mars.

The latest discovery comes from NASA's Curiosity rover, which in addition to analyzing rocks and soil samples, is sniffing the air at its Gale Crater landing site.

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A year ago, scientists reported that Curiosity had come up empty-handed after an eight-month search for methane in the atmosphere, leaving earlier detections by ground-based telescopes and Mars-orbiting spacecraft an unexplained anomaly.

"We thought we had closed the book on methane. It was disappointing to a lot of people that there wasn't significant methane on Mars, but that's where we were," Curiosity scientist Christopher Webster with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told Discovery News.

Then, on the day after Thanksgiving in 2013, methane readings shot up in Gale Crater and stayed high while Curiosity made three more measurements over the next 60 days.

"It was a complete surprise," Webster said.

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Six weeks later, the rover's Tunable Laser Spectrometer scanned again and found methane concentrations were back down to about seven parts per billion, a background level that dovetails with previous measurements by telescopes and Mars orbiters.

Methane concentrations stayed at that background level through July 9, 2014, the last measurement included in a report to be published in this week's Science.

The discovery revives two somewhat dormant investigations. The first and most difficult to answer is tracing the source of the methane and figuring out what triggers its periodic release into the atmosphere.

One possibility is that Mars hosts past or present colonies of methane-producing microbes known as methanogens. It is highly unlikely that Curiosity -- or India's newly arrived methane-hunting Mars-orbiting spacecraft -- has the sensitivity to chemically analyze isotopes in the methane molecules and identify whether the gas is produced by biological processes or geochemical ones.

On sol 393 (Sept. 13) of Curiosity's mission, the rover snapped this image of a rocky outcrop called "Darwin" that the rover will study before continuing its rove to Mount Sharp (pictured in the distance). | NASA/JPL-Caltech

Methane is a chemical compound comprised of one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms. On Earth, living systems produce more than 90 percent of the methane in the atmosphere. The rest stems from geochemical processes.

Another option for Mars' methane is that carbon-rich meteorites occasionally blast through Mars' thin envelope of atmospheric gases, temporarily spiking methane levels as the carbon cooks in ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

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"It's basically an organic bomb," astrobiologist Chris McKay, with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., told Discovery News.

Impacting meteorites are just one of several potential geochemical sources of Mars' methane. Other possibilities are the erosion of methane-pocketed basalt rock, transformations of the rock-forming mineral olivine and subsurface methane-laced ice.

The second mystery reopened Curiosity's findings concerns methane's rather shocking disappearing act. On Mars, the gas should last 300 years in the atmosphere. But Curiosity's readings, among others, show it dissipates orders of magnitude faster.

Based on Curiosity's measurements alone, that may be because the winds changed, pushing the pocket of methane beyond the rover's nose. Add in previous detections of methane plumes over larger regions and the story gets more complicated -- and puzzling.

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"The take-home message here is that we're really being faced with a paradigm shift," planetary scientist Michael Mumma, with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told Discovery News.

Mumma, who led a team that found methane in Mars' atmosphere in 2003, was not involved in the Curiosity research.

The findings will be released today at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

Curiosity has been carrying out surface operations on Mars since 2012 and initially drew a blank on methane detections.