Nasa’s Mars Rover Curiosity has failed to find a key chemical on the Red Planet challenging the theory of life on Mars.
According to data collected by the robot, the Martian environment lacks methane. This comes as a surprise to researchers as previous information had indicated positive detections. Crucially, this reduces the possibility that life ever survived there.
Over the past decade, scientists using Mars satellites and telescopes on Earth have reported plumes of methane in the Martian atmosphere. These small but potentially crucial amounts of methane would have indicated the possibility of life on the Red Planet. On Earth, the vast majority of methane in the atmosphere is caused by organic life.
The rover is now 14 months into a planned two-year mission to search for signs of organic life. This latest discovery adds a new twist to the debate about possible life on Mars.
Not all scientists are convinced that methane is missing there. And according to the twitter account of the Rover itself, there is still a chance that life once existed on Mars. On 19 September, one of its messages read “Lack of methane doesn’t mean Mars never supported life. Plenty of Earth organisms don’t produce the gas.”
The debate is still open.
It’s hoped an upcoming Indian mission will provide further information on the question. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, scheduled to be launched at the end of October, will explore the existence of life on the Red Planet.
The spacecraft is currently undergoing vibration and acoustic tests before being shipped to the Satish Dhawan Space Centre. It will travel 10 months in space before reaching the Red Planet, where it is scheduled to land in September 2014. The satellite will carry compact scientific experimental gear to study the Martian surface, its atmosphere and its mineralogy.
The mission’s programme director, Mylswamy Annadurai, says they will be using a colour camera in order to take pictures of Mars from various angles. The satellite is also equipped with a methane sensor, in order to detect the possible presence of the gas on the planet. And there is also an infrared thermal imaging camera.
India’s mission to Mars, estimated to cost at least 80 million dollars, has drawn mixed reactions. While India defends it as an honorable scientific pursuit, critics denounce it as a mere showpiece and question a political decision to spend this amount on space exploration in a country where millions of people still lack clean drinking water and suffer from malnourishment.
Others question the highly elliptical orbit planned for the satellite saying it will not allow it to take accurate enough pictures of Mars.
It’s hoped another two upcoming missions will gather more data. NASA’s next pursuit, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission or MAVEN, will study how the loss of atmosphere has affected the planet’s climate. The probe is due to launch in November this year and arrive in Mars’ orbit in September 2014.
Meanwhile, the European and Russian space agencies are working together on the new ExoMars mission for 2016, which will include an orbiter to search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could signify active biological or geological processes.
In the meantime, Curiosity’s job is not over. The probe will be performing more sensitive tests for methane in the coming months.