NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected “unusually high” levels of methane on the Red Planet.
Methane is an odorless, colorless gas that can be produced by simple geological processes as well as by microbes and other living organisms, so the new methane spike doesn’t definitively prove that life exists or once existed on Mars.
“While increased methane levels measured by @MarsCuriosity are exciting, as possible indicators for life, it’s important to remember this is an early science result,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the science mission directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a tweet on Saturday.
NASA said Curiosity scientists needed more time to analyze the new findings and to conduct additional methane observations. A spokesperson for the agency declined a request for more information.
“It’s interesting, but we should wait a bit to be sure the data are confirmed,” Dorothy Oehler, a senior scientist with the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said of the methane spike in an email to NBC News MACH. Methane seeps from certain types of rocks on Earth and the same types exist on Mars, she said, “so while we cannot exclude a microbial origin for the methane peaks on Mars, that would not be necessary to explain the detections to date.”
Curiosity has detected methane many times since its arrival on Mars in 2012, but this is the most the rover has ever detected: 21 parts per billion by volume. That’s three times higher than the previous record, Nature reported, though far below atmospheric methane levels on Earth.