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The uncertainty of science: Data from Curiosity during its two Martian years on Mars have revealed a faint but distinct seasonal fluctuation in the amount of methane in the local atmosphere, a fluctuation that scientists do not have a good explanation for.
Since landing in 2012, Curiosity has on 30 occasions opened a few valves to the martian night and taken a sniff of the thin, frigid air. In a small, mirrored chamber, it shines a laser through the air sample and measures the absorption at specific wavelengths that indicate methane. At the meeting, Webster reported vanishingly small background levels of the gas: 0.4 parts per billion (ppb), compared with Earth’s 1800 ppb.
Where that whiff comes from is the heart of the mystery. Microbes (including those that live in the guts of cows and sheep) are responsible for most of Earth’s methane, and Mars’s could conceivably come from microbes as well—either contemporary microbes or ancient ones, if the methane they produced was trapped underground. But methane can also be made in ways that have nothing to do with biology. Hydrothermal reactions with olivine-rich rocks underground can generate it, as can reactions driven by ultraviolet (UV) light striking the carbon-containing meteoroids and dust that constantly rain down on the planet from space.
Now, add to the methane puzzle the seasonal variation Curiosity has detected, with levels cycling between about 0.3 ppb and 0.7 ppb over more than two martian years. Some seasonality is expected in an atmosphere that is mostly carbon dioxide (CO2), says François Forget, who models the climate of Mars at the Laboratory of Dynamical Meteorology in Paris. In the southern winter, some of that CO2 freezes out onto the large southern polar cap, making the overall atmosphere thinner. That boosts the concentration of any residual methane, which doesn’t freeze, and by the end of northern summer this methane-enriched air makes its way north to Curiosity’s location, Forget says. Seasonal variations in dust storms and levels of UV light could also affect the abundance of methane, if interplanetary dust is its primary source.
But, Webster said at the meeting, the seasonal signal is some three times larger than those mechanisms could explain. Maybe the methane—whatever its source—is absorbed and released from pores in surface rocks at rates that depend on temperature, he said. Another explanation, “one that no one talks about but is in the back of everyone’s mind,” is biological activity, says Mike Mumma, a planetary scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “You’d expect life to be seasonal.”
They have a lot of theories, from asteroids to alien life, but none really explains this adequately.