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Martian methane fades away but mystery remains

Curiosity rover
This image was taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover on June 18. It shows part of Teal Ridge, which the rover has been studying in a region called the “clay-bearing unit.” (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — NASA says the record-setting belch of Martian methane that its Curiosity rover detected last week has faded away, leaving some big questions hanging in the air: Where did the gas come from, and what were its origins?

Much of the methane on Earth is produced biologically, from sources ranging from microbes to the digestive tracts of cows and humans. But methane can also be produced through geological, completely non-biological processes. For example, methane makes up about 5 percent of the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon Titan, which is so cold that methane and other hydrocarbons pool up in lakes and rivers.

Curiosity’s onboard chemistry lab — known as Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM — has an instrument that can sense methane levels in the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and those levels usually amount to less than 1 part per billion by volume. But SAM has registered several curious methane spikes during its seven years of surface operations — including a rise to 6 parts per billion in 2013 that got NASA’s attention, and another detection that rose even higher during the following Martian year.

Last week, methane levels spiked to the highest levels ever detected by Curiosity: 21 parts per billion. That caused the SAM science team to change their plans for the weekend and make follow-up measurements.

Those measurements were sent back to the science team this morning, and they showed that methane levels were back to their usual level.

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Is there life on Mars? The answer may be squishy

Curiosity rover
NASA’s Curiosity rover took this selfie in June 2018 by capturing a series of pictures with a camera mounted on its robotic arm. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected fresh whiffs of Martian methane, once again sparking speculation about a potential biological source — but researchers at the space agency say it’s too early to raise the alert for life on Mars.

Scientists who are gathering here for the annual Astrobiology Science Conference, or AbSciCon, acknowledge that depending on the context, methane could be an indicator of biological activity, as it is on Earth. But it could just as well be of purely geological origin.

“It’s not in itself a biosignature,” Abigail Allwood, a field geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told GeekWire today during a media workshop.

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Mars rover makes ‘breakthroughs in astrobiology’

Curiosity rover
NASA’s Curiosity rover snaps a self-portrait on Mars’ Vera Rubin Ridge in February. The rover used a camera mounted on its robotic arm to take the pictures that went into this mosaic. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS Photo)

The latest evidence for methane and other organic chemicals on Mars isn’t the smoking gun for life on Mars that some folks may have been hoping for, but it gives astrobiologists much more to go on.

Readings gathered by NASA’s Curiosity rover show a seasonal cycle in the rise and fall of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, as well as conclusive evidence of organic molecules in drilled-out Martian rocks. The findings are laid out in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

The reports are consistent with past observations, including previous detections of organic molecules as well as measurements of atmospheric methane going back more than a decade. The readings could be explained by past or present biological activity, but non-biological explanations could serve as well.

The big difference this time around is that the signals of organic molecules are orders of magnitude stronger than those previous hints, thanks to more precise, targeted measurements.

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Curiosity rover fleshes out picture of old Mars

Mars geology in Gale Crater
This schematic illustrates how the creation and disappearance of a Martian lake created different layers of rock in the region being explored by NASA’s Curiosity rover. (NASA / JPL Graphic)

Scientists say they’re putting together the puzzle pieces provided by NASA’s Curiosity rover to get a better picture of how the outlook for habitability on Mars brightened and dimmed over the course of billions of years.

“We see all the properties in place that we like to associate with habitability,” Caltech planetary scientist John Grotzinger said today during a session at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco.

As Curiosity makes its way up the layered slopes of a 3-mile-high peak known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp, it’s encountering different layers of material that hint at how the region around the mountain was formed.

Grotzinger and his colleagues said that clay minerals, boron and an iron-bearing mineral known as hematite are more abundant in the higher layers. Their presence suggests that there was dynamic chemical interaction between the rocks and groundwater in ancient times.

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Sand ripples tell tales about Mars’ climate

Image: Mars sand ripples
Two sizes of ripples can be seen in this view of a Martian sand dune. The larger ripples are roughly 10 feet apart, and unlike any type seen in earthly sand fields. The smaller ripples, superimposed on the larger ripples, are similar to those seen on Earth. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

The sands of Mars move in mysterious ways – including one way that’s not seen on Earth’s surface, but only on the sandy bottom of bodies of water. And the scientists behind NASA’s Curiosity rover mission say those weird medium-sized ripples can reveal how Mars’ atmosphere has changed, or not, over the course of billions of years.

The alien ripples are the focus of a research paper published today by the journal Science.

“Earth and Mars both have big sand dunes and small sand ripples, but on Mars, there’s something in between that we don’t have on Earth,” Caltech researcher Mathieu Lapotre said in a NASA news release. Lapotre, who works with the Curiosity mission’s science team, is the lead author of the Science report.

The report is based on a close-up examination of the Bagnold Dunes, a stretch of Martian sand that Curiosity passed through as it made its way toward the foothills of 3-mile-high Mount Sharp (a.k.a. Aeolis Mons).

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Curiosity rover might scout for water on Mars

Image: Curiosity selfie
This selfie of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at a drilled sample site called “Okoruso,” on the Naukluft Plateau of lower Mount Sharp. The scene combines several images taken with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager on May 11. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

NASA says one of the Curiosity rover’s future tasks could be to check out sites on Mars that may harbor trickles of salty water.

It’s been nearly four years since Curiosity was dropped into Gale Crater by a rocket-powered crane. Since that touchdown, the six-wheeled, 1-ton robot has foundample evidence that water once flowed through the territory it has explored.

Curiosity is now making its way up the side of Mount Sharp (a.k.a. Aeolis Mons), a 3-mile-high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater – and it’s making further discoveries along the way.

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Get a 360-degree view of monster dune on Mars

Image: Mars panorama
A portion of a 360-degree panorama captured by NASA’s Curiosity rover shows a portion of a 16-foot-high sand dune on Mars, with the summit of Mount Sharp in the far background. The bottom of the image is distorted due to the 360-degree effect. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

The 16-foot-high sand dune that NASA’s Curiosity rover has been skirting around on Mars looks even more imposing in a 360-degree panoramic view you can explore on the Internet.

NASA passed along the spherical panorama, as well as a red-blue version suitable for 3-D viewing, in an image advisory posted today. But panorama prestidigitator Andrew Bodrov got an early crack at the imagery. Even before Christmas, Bodrov posted the picture as a 360-degree panorama you can spin around on your screen. See it full screen for the best results – and if you’re a virtual-reality developer, put it on your list for the full headset treatment.

The dominant feature is Namib Dune, a huge pile of grayish-reddish sand that has been built up by the action of Martian winds. It’s part of the Bagnold Dunes, a series of sandy slopes that line the northwest flank of 3-mile-high Mount Sharp.

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