Curiosity Rover Gulps Mars Air, Finds Hint of Vanished Atmosphere
NASA’s Curiosity rover has gulped in Martian air but failed to find methane – a gas linked to living things. But it has turned up signs that Mars may have lost much of its original atmosphere. Since landing on the Red Planet’s surface Aug. 5, the Mars Science Laboratory rover has zapped rocks with its laser, dug its toes into sand dunes at its current location, Rocknest, and even scooped up Martian soil for a little taste in its laboratory belly. Now it has breathed in the Martian atmosphere, looking for clues as to the composition of Mars’ atmosphere.
Mars’ atmosphere is very thin – a mere 100th the density of the Earth’s – and too thin to easily support life. But planetary scientists think the atmosphere was once much thicker – and they want to find out why so much of it disappeared. Scientists had also been itching to get a whiff of methane, which would indicate that living things were at some point hard at work. “Everybody is excited about the possibility of methane on Mars because life as we know it produces methane — and indeed 90% to 95% of all methane in the Earth’s atmosphere is biologically derived,” said SAM co-investigator Sushil Atreya. For the moment, however, the methane measurements were a bust.