Thursday, September 19, 2013

NASA's Case of the Missing Methane -or- Barsoomian Bugs Blatently Belchless


According to a recent JPL press release, the Mars Curiosity rover has been unable to detect traces of methane in the Mars atmosphere. This is somewhat troubling as methane has been detected from orbit by various spacecraft, but it appears as though methane is a rare or non-existent phenomena in the area surrounding the rover. This news does not bode well for Mars biology enthusiasts, as the presence of methane would be a key indicator of the presence of Martian microbial life. Since there has been little or no methane detected, one might conclude that no life exists on the red planet. Still other explanations for the lack of methane might exist: Perhaps any methane exists only in the high reaches of the Martian atmosphere. Perhaps the Martian environment is remarkably hostile towards Methane -- the soil is rich in perchlorates and the surface is bombarded with UV rays -- maybe the methane is oxidized through as yet unknown phenomena, perhaps the methane measurement instrument on the rover has somehow malfunctioned.

Since the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was one of the craft that identified methane previously, perhaps it would be possible to use it's measurement capability to verify that no methane is present near the rover. By cross-checking the two vehicle's data, it might be possible to figure out why the discrepancy exists. The image above is a view inside Curiosity's Tunable Laser Spectrometer. This instrument is part of the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) unit.

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