Martian methane spikes could hint at life (but probably not)

Methane, in small quantities, is a constant on Mars. The scientists behind the Curiosity rover have seen that for years now. But a paper published Tuesday details that NASA is seeing something else too: pockets of methane at concentrations 10 times higher than normal. That could indicate some form of life activity below the soil, or something more boring.

“This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” Curiosity rover science team member Sushil Atreya said in a release. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

Science agencies are interested in methane because the vast majority of it on Earth originates from living organisms. The four methane spikes Curiosity found over two months could pinpoint spots where life is, or once was, emitting methane. Or, as Atreya said, it could be water and rock creating and then trapping pockets of gas.

At the very least, the methane finds bring Curiosity in line with what the spacecraft circling Mars have seen. And there is proof there is much more to be discovered on the red planet.

The team also determined that some of the organics — molecules of carbon and generally hydrogen — discovered by Curiosity really did come from Mars. Some traveled on the rover from Earth, casting doubt that the rest were Martian. Organics can also be a marker of life (or not).