1st Methane, Now Oxygen: Another Possible 'Biosignature' Gas Is Acting Weird on Mars

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover imaged these drifting clouds on May 17, 2019, the 2,410th Martian day, or sol, of the mission, using its black-and-white Navigation Cameras.
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover imaged these drifting clouds on May 17, 2019, the 2,410th Martian day, or sol, of the mission, using its black-and-white Navigation Cameras. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Another possible biosignature gas is behaving strangely in Mars' air.

We already knew, thanks to NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, that methane levels in the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater rise significantly during the summer months and that concentrations of the gas have spiked dramatically several times over the past few years, for unknown reasons. And now, a new study reports that the six-wheeled robot has observed something similar with oxygen, another potential sign of life. 

"We're beginning to see this tantalizing correlation between methane and oxygen for a good part of the Mars year," study co-author Sushil Atreya, a professor of climate and space sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in a statement. "I think there's something to it. I just don't have the answers yet. Nobody does."

Related: Amazing Mars Photos by NASA's Curiosity Rover (Latest Images) 

Graph showing oxygen levels inside Mars' Gale Crater, as measured by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. (Image credit: Melissa Trainer/Dan Gallagher/NASA Goddard)

The newly reported results come courtesy of Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, a small chemistry lab that the rover carries on its body. The mission team has been using SAM to characterize the Red Planet's atmosphere and analyze samples of dirt and drilled rock since Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater in August 2012.

The new study, which was published online Tuesday (Nov. 12) in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, provides a detailed look at the SAM atmospheric measurements from 2012 to 2017. The data show that the air inside Gale Crater is 95% carbon dioxide (CO2) by volume, 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2) and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). 

There are no surprises in those numbers. But the team found that O2 levels don't follow the same seasonal patterns as those other gases, rising considerably higher than predicted in the spring and summer and falling below expected levels during the Gale Crater winter.

And that was definitely a surprise.

"The first time we saw that, it was just mind-boggling," Atreya said.

The researchers checked and rechecked SAM's accuracy, determining that the instrument is working just fine. And they investigated multiple possible explanations but didn't find one that bears up under scrutiny. For example, the summer O2 boost could theoretically result from the splitting of CO2 or water molecules in Mars' atmosphere. But it would take five times more water in the air than has been observed to make that happen, study team members said, and CO2 doesn't break apart with the requisite speed.

So the O2 variation, like the methane fluctuations, remains mysterious for now.

"We're struggling to explain this," study leader Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in the same statement. "The fact that the oxygen behavior isn't perfectly repeatable every season makes us think that it's not an issue that has to do with atmospheric dynamics. It has to be some chemical source and sink that we can't yet account for."

The behavior of oxygen in Gale Crater tracks closely with that of methane, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover mission has found. (Image credit: Melissa Trainer/Dan Gallagher/NASA Goddard)

But the mystery does not justify jumping to the conclusion that Mars microbes are involved, the scientists stressed. Indeed, some kind of geological process is likely responsible, study team members said. (Both methane and oxygen can be produced by abiotic and biological processes.)

Curiosity is not equipped to determine whether oxygen or methane was produced by living creatures. But more data could shed additional light on this Mars mystery, and SAM will keep sniffing the Red Planet air.

"For me, this is an open call to all the smart people out there who are interested in this: See what you can come up with," Trainer said. 

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

  • Hildy
    While SETI should use the default "not alien" in its results, it seems irrational to denigrate the possibility of extraterrestrial microbial life on Mars (or anywhere else).

    It should be remembered that the Viking LR experiment yielded results that showed the existence of biological activities according to the experimental design. Since then, other non-biological explanations have been proposed.

    Also, the Martian meteorite AHL84001 had morphological features which were described as biomorphs. Since then, other non-biological explanations have also been proposed.

    I won't speculate on why the Martian research community speaks as it does but it would seem that allowing for a biological, as well as a geological explanation would be a better scientific approach.
  • rod
    Life on Mars reports I find very interesting and very tentative. We have this report on methane gas differences reported between NASA and ESA probes, ESA's Mars orbiters did not see
    My model for scientific accuracy is the standard of repeated observations, predictions, and measurements that led astronomers to abandon the geocentric universe of Claudius Ptolemy through Tycho Brahe and embrace the heliocentric solar system and distance measurements that came following the 1672 Cassini Mars parallax measurements. Later telescopes revealed the solar parallax and stellar parallax measurements. Much observation using telescopes, parallax measurements, etc. are responsible for rejecting the geocentric doctrine and embracing the heliocentric solar system. When I look at the history of life on Mars reports going back to Percival Lowell observations, his Martians building canals through current claims about life on Mars, especially since NASA Viking landers or meteorite ALH84001 – the science is not as secure as the astronomy science that led to rejection of the geocentric solar system and small universe teaching (telescope parallax measurements showed just how false this cosmology was). The life on Mars doctrine is not securely established like the astronomy that overthrew the geocentric universe. It also appears to me that if NASA or others never find life on Mars – you can never falsify the tenet that life once evolved on Mars and lived there – billions of years ago.
    Percival Lowell