NASA Mars rover finds no sign of methane, telltale sign of life

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Thu Sep 19, 2013 8:19pm EDT

This self-portrait of NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is shown in this NASA handout composite image released May 30, 2013. REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters

This self-portrait of NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is shown in this NASA handout composite image released May 30, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/Handout via Reuters

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has come up empty-handed in its search for methane in the planet's atmosphere, a gas that on Earth is a strong indicator of life, officials said on Thursday.

The rover landed on Mars in August 2012 to determine whether the planet most like Earth in the solar system has or ever had the chemistry and conditions to support microbial life.

Over the past decade, scientists using Mars orbiters and telescopes on Earth have reported plumes of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

The gas breaks down in sunlight, so its presence on Mars indicated that either biological activity or a recent geologic event was responsible for its release.

The gas, which lasts about 300 years in Earth's atmosphere, could be expected to stick around for 200 years on Mars. But Curiosity's findings, compiled over eight months, indicate that the methane may have virtually disappeared in a matter of years.

Based on the previous observations, scientists had expected to find about six times more methane in the atmosphere than the negligible amounts Curiosity found.

"There's a discrepancy," lead research Christopher Webster, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told Reuters. "Suddenly the whole interpretation of earlier observations is stuck."

Webster said it is possible but unlikely that the lack of methane is particular to Curiosity's landing site, a giant basin near the planet's equator.

Once methane is released from the surface, scientists believe it would spread fairly quickly through the planet's thin atmosphere.

"It's disappointing, of course," Webster said. "We would have liked to get there and find lots of methane."

The search is not over. Curiosity will continue to take air samples and test for methane as it continues its geology mission.

Scientists also plan another round of observations with Earth-based telescopes next year.

The research appears this week in the journal Science.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Xavier Briand)

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Comments (3)
gregbrew56 wrote:
Bummer.

Sep 20, 2013 10:23am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Ppoiuytrewq wrote:
At 10% of Earth mass the gravity is probably not enough to hold methane (ch4) in the atmophere it would escaape into space as do hydrogen and helium do from earth.

Sep 20, 2013 9:27pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
morbas wrote:
Article indicates methane will disperse into space at about 200 years. Guess that only restricts life on Mars past 1813. Perhaps Lowell’s late 1800′s canals were remnants of a earlier society. @:-)

Sep 21, 2013 9:25pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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