Curiosity rover might be sitting on top of methane-producing microbes

Scientists are eager to look for any form of life on the surface of Mars. The consensus is that sometime in the distant past, Mars may have been hospitable to life of some type. Some also believe that Mars might currently harbor microbial life and point to increased levels of methane seen in some areas as proof.

Something interesting has been going on with the Curiosity rover as it explores Gale crater. Since it landed on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has been using an instrument called the Tunable Laser Spectrometer to measure the amount of methane in its vicinity. On Mars, a background level of methane at about 0.41 parts per billion has been constant.

NASA has noted six separate occasions where the amount of methane in the vicinity of Curiosity has increased significantly. However, on most of those occasions, NASA has been unable to track the increased methane to its source. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology modeled the methane gas particles by splitting them into discrete packets to track the methane to its source.

They took into account wind speed and direction at the time of the detection and traced the parcels of methane back to their possible emission point. The research allowed scientists to triangulate regions most likely to be the source of the methane and found that one was several dozen miles from Curiosity. Scientists say their findings point to an emission region to the west and the southwest of Curiosity on the northwestern crater floor.

Scientists are excited about the discovery because, on Earth, almost all methane has biological origins. Finding the source of methane on Mars could mean finding extraterrestrial life for the first time. Even if the methane is the result of non-biological processes, it could be associated with geological activity that's tied to the presence of liquid water. Curiosity is closer to finding the source of methane production, but researchers still have no idea if some sort of life is producing the methane.