Something on Mars is producing methane, and we don’t know what

In a breakthrough discovery, recently a European orbiter found that Mars produces methane. And if you don’t know the implications of this discovery, you’re not alone.

According to the New York Times, scientists working with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter found methane on the planet in a place called Gale Crater. Furthermore, NASA’s Curiosity rover also detected a rise in methane in the same region for more than two months in the summer of 2013.

What does this mean?

Despite the usual cultural picture of the lone, mad scientist, science is a collective work. One of the most important aspects of the scientific method is replication — making sure that someone can independently discover what you discovered. Finding methane may not have been that big a deal from either the rover or the orbiter, but it was from both.

“Our finding constitutes the first independent confirmation of a methane detection,” said Marco Giuranna, a scientist at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy, in an email. Dr. Giuranna is principal investigator for the Mars Express instrument that made the measurements.

The question that naturally follows from the now-certainty that there is methane on Mars is what is causing it. According to the report, methane molecules don’t hang around forever, so for us to detect it, it must have been created recently.

The findings also point to a possible source of methane about 300 miles away from Gale Crater, which would be an enticing spot for NASA’s 2020 rover to land.

Another speculation is that the source of methane is biological rather than geological. Every year, one cow alone produces 70 to 120 kg of methane. A biological source for the methane could raise the conspiratorial specter of life on Mars.

At the present moment, no one is jumping the gun to suggest that life on Mars definitively exists. However, this discovery reveals the theory to be far from implausible.

Image provided via NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/HI-RISE

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