NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EDT on Friday, Nov. 2, to provide an update on Curiosity’s studies of the Martian atmosphere.
The Mars Science Laboratory Project and its Curiosity rover are about three months into a two-year prime mission to investigate whether conditions in Mars’ Gale Crater may have been favorable for microbial life.
Images to be discussed during the briefing will be available at the start of the event here
One instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite that gave us exciting news almost from the get go is the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS).
The PFS while determining the composition of the Martian atmosphere from the wavelengths of sunlight (in the range 1.2-45 microns) absorbed by molecules in the atmosphere and from the infrared radiation they emit, found methane in the atmosphere of Mars.
Methane points to recent activity on the planet as sunlight transforms methane into other chemicals over the course of only 3 centuries. After 250-300 years no methane would remain. Still, PFS found methane which meant that something on Mars was producing methane.
Should the headlines around Earth have read ‘we are not alone!’ , is a question hard to answer.
Methane can be the product of the lifecycle of bacteria, or can be the byproduct of volcanic activity. Note: volcanic activity makes the likelihood of life on present day Mars also a lot higher as warmth and water (which melts when exposed to heat) gives a high chance of chemicals being absorbed by something and those somethings might be life bacteria.
When Vittorio Formisano announced his find in April 2004 the European Space Agency was appaled. They deemed his enthusiasm and announcement premature.
However at the same time two teams (led by Mumma and Krasnopolsky), working independently of each other and independent of Mars Express detected methane in the Martian atmosphere using radio telescopes here in Earth.
Later research by Formisano confirmed the amount of methane in the atmosphere and placed the hightest levels of detection exactly there where we know that Mars has an abundance of water in its soil. At those spots water vapour clouds were also detected. So perhaps we indeed are not alone?
What is certain that the detection of methane in the martian atmosphere gave rise to the need to design a Mars mission to corroborate this methane detection and possibly detect longer hydrocarbons and other complex organic molecules. Mars Science Lab Curiosity is send to detect hydrocarbons; perhaps we get our answer sooner than hoped?
PFS also measured the vertical pressure and temperature profile of carbon dioxide which makes up 95% of the martian atmosphere. PFS looked for minor constituents including water, carbon monoxide, methane and formaldehyde in that atmosphere.
below image of methane measured in Martian atmosphere by Mars Express in 2004