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Zero methane on Mars: Findings a setback in search for life

September 19, 2013|By Scott Gold | By Scott Gold
  • This image shows a lab demonstration of the measurement chamber inside the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, an instrument that is part of the Sample Analysis at Mars investigation on NASA's Curiosity rover. This demonstration uses visible lasers -- rather than the infrared ones on the actual spectrometer -- to show how the lasers bounce between the mirrors in the measurement chamber. The tool can measure concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor in the Martian atmosphere and different isotopes of those gases.
This image shows a lab demonstration of the measurement… (Courtesy of NASA/JPL )

The most high-fidelity search for methane on Mars has turned up none, a result that significantly reduces the chances of finding microbial life on the Red Planet.

The highly awaited results of tests conducted by NASA’s Curiosity rover do not completely rule out the possibility that something is alive on Mars, researchers said. But the findings, published online Thursday by the journal Science, strongly suggest that Mars is barren.

“We’re very confident in this result,” said study leader Christopher R. Webster, who oversees the development of planetary science instruments at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. “It’s a very robust measurement.”

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Last year, Curiosity released an initial batch of test results showing methane levels on Mars of no more than five parts per billion. That announcement deflated scientists across the globe, who had hoped for higher and more electrifying numbers.

Thursday’s report on the most sensitive methane tests ever conducted on Mars — six atmospheric samples measured from last fall to this summer — was even more definitive. Even stretching statistical error to its end point, the scientists concluded that there is no more than 1.3 parts per billion of methane in the Martian atmosphere. But the practical result was zero.


“We have not detected methane,” Webster said. The tests, he said, indicate “a low probability that there is ongoing microbial activity today.”

What’s more, scientists said, Mars is efficient at distributing gases like methane evenly across its surface. That means Curiosity was not just testing methane levels in Gale Crater, the geological feature just south of the equator where the rover is doing its work.

The results, Webster said, “are representative of the atmosphere as a whole.”

But the possible existence of methane of Mars speaks to arguably the largest single question that science seeks to answer: Is there life beyond Earth today?

Curiosity has sent home a trove of geological evidence suggesting that Mars — which used to be wet and warm like Earth — once fostered a habitable environment. Indeed, the very first rock the rover drilled from beneath the Martian surface contained hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and other key building blocks of life.

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