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November 6 2012

Hopes linger for Mars methane

Last week’s preliminary verdict from the Mars rover Curiosity on whether the planet’s atmosphere contains methane ended weeks of anticipation. But the verdict — a qualified no — seems unlikely to end years of controversy.

Sporadic claims of Martian methane in the past decade have met with scepticism — and not just because the measurements are difficult to make. Methane at levels of tens of parts per billion could be a sign that microbes are at work on the planet, lending urgency to proposals to hunt for a subterranean Martian biosphere. The European Space Agency (ESA) has already taken steps in this direction, and is planning an orbiter that would map methane sources as a precursor to sending a rover to look for Martian life. Yet some scientists believe that this is premature, even quixotic, and could distract from the current agenda of NASA’s rover, which is to look for signs that the planet was habitable at some time in its warmer and wetter past.

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