NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has detected no trace of methane, contradicting earlier observations that suggest that the organic molecule might be present on the Red Planet.
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has revealed no trace of methane, a potential sign of primitive life, on the Martian surface, contradicting past evidence of the gas spotted by spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet, researchers say.
The Mars methane discovery, or rather the lack thereof, adds new fuel to the debate over whether the gas is truly present on Mars. And not all scientists are convinced that methane is missing on Mars.
The first and only attempts to search for life on Mars were the Viking missions, launched in 1975. Those probes failed to find organic compounds in Martian soils, apparently ruling out the possibility of extant life on the Red Planet. [7 Biggest Mars Mysteries of All Time]
But in the past decade, probes orbiting Mars and telescopes on Earth have detected what appeared to be plumes of methane gas from the Red Planet. The presence of colorless, odorless, flammable methane on Mars, the simplest organic molecule, helped revive the possibility of life once existing, or even currently living, just below the planet's surface.
On Earth, much of the methane in the atmosphere is released by life-forms, such as cattle. Scientists have suspected that methane stays stable in the Martian atmosphere for only about 300 years, so whatever is generating this gas did so recently.
Now, the new findings from NASA's Curiosity rover unveiled online today (Sept. 19) in the journal Science suggest that, at most, only trace amounts of methane exist on Mars.
"Because methane production is a possible signature of biological activity, our result is disappointing for many," said study lead author Christopher Webster, an Earth and planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
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