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Mars Science

Has the Mars Rover Sniffed Methane? 119

First time accepted submitter GrimAndBearIt writes "NASA's Curiosity rover is poised to settle years of debate on the question of atmospheric methane on Mars, which would be a sign of microbial life. With parts per trillion sensitivity, it's not so much a question of whether the rover will be able to smell trace amounts of methane, but rather a question of how much. NASA has announced that Grotzinger's team will discuss atmospheric measurements at a briefing on 2 November. If the rover has detected methane at sufficiently high concentration, or exhibiting temporal variations of the kind that suggests microbial activity, then it will surely motivate a desire to identify and map the sources."
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Has the Mars Rover Sniffed Methane?

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  • by Maow ( 620678 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @06:20AM (#41851191) Journal

    I remember reading something on Slashdot *years* ago by someone (MBone?) that worked on Viking and still had some documents / protocol info in his garage.

    Anyone who did work on Viking landers, I'd love to read what you think about this impending announcement.

    Feel free to add any tales / memories that might be relevant; I'm sure there are some fascinating stories that could be told from a real space nerd.

    Dammit, I wish I could find the original post referred to in my first line...


  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 02, 2012 @06:22AM (#41851199)

    I think the easiest part of the experiment is the rover. Getting delicate scientific instruments to survive the trip is challenging, and getting them integrated a space system is brutal.

  • by vikingpower ( 768921 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @08:01AM (#41851577) Homepage Journal
    And let us assume that microbial life is the explanation we are or, better, NASA is going for. What then ? Will this radically change the focus of Mars exploration ? Are we then going to search frantically for said microbes ? And if so: how ? And when ? And where ?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 02, 2012 @08:22AM (#41851677)

    Seriously? Do you have any idea just how fricking big a planet is? Although smaller than Earth, Mars is HHHUUUUGGGEEEE on human scales. And it is all empty. Barren. Desolate. Look out your window now, and imagine all the buildings, roads, people, animals, plants, rivers, oceans... everything except for the dirt and the rocks.. gone. All the way to the horizon. Just barren, rocky nothingness. Now imagine that from the horizon to the next horizon. And again, and again, and again. Imagine walking or driving for weeks or months through that landscape, seeing nothing but rocks, rocks, dirt and rocks. And you thought it was a long way down the road to the chemist.

    Do you really think a few tiny bits of technology scattered here and there - hundreds or thousands of miles apart - are really going to spoil the view? And for who exactly? If there is life on Mars it's not exactly going to be worried about property prices. You could strip-mine an area the size of Brazil into a toxic sludgepile and still have infinitely more square kilometres of perfectly-preserved rocky boringness left over than you'd know what to do with.

    The hard truth is, most of space is dead, dead, dead. There might be a lot of question marks in the Drake equation, but even with the most optimistic numbers, most of the of the worlds in this galaxy are just drab, sterile rocks floating in a vacuum, with nothing better to offer existence than to be explored and exploited by us. Undoubtedly there are pristine habitats and natural wonders out there worthy of preservation. Olympus Mons almost certainly counts among them. The Valles Marineres too, and doubtless other sites yet to be discovered. Yet another Martian plain, however, does not warrant UNESCO galactic heritage status, and even if it did I would still dispute your assertion that a little remote-controlled buggy driving over it is somehow ruining it forever.

    And besides, even if we did find life on another world- not even intelligent or even multicellular life- then you can bet your luddite ass that NASA and their counterparts in other space programs would be insanely respectful of it. If Curiosity digs up a microbe on Mars, they'd be extra-triple sure their next mission was even less likely to bring Earth organisms to the planet than the last. Hell, they would probably seriously question whether to send anything else to the surface at all. And not just because they wouldn't want to contaminate the science - they'd do it because that microbe is important in its own right, and it would be wrong for us to jeopardise its survival, and because Mars rightfully belongs to the microbes.

    Trying to portray our planet's space scientists as inconsiderate jerks firing shit up into space willy-nilly like a bunch of rednecks with a stack of beercans and a skeetshooter does no justice at all to a group of thoughtful, intelligent and passionate people who value the beauty and majesty of the heavens a thousand times more than you or I ever will.

  • by Squidlips ( 1206004 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @09:15AM (#41852039)
    The significant part of the observation will be the C13/C12 isotope ratio. Curiosity's SAM/TLS device can sort out carbon (and oxygen) isotopes. Enhanced C12 would suggest a biological source.
  • Re:First (Score:5, Interesting)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @09:21AM (#41852095) Journal
    Joking aside, it is entirely possible that what the rover is detecting could be coming from the rover itself. There are all sorts of plastics on the rover: wiring insulation and cable ties, paint, adhesives, etc. that may be breaking down and giving off methane. There may be residues from the pyrotechnics that may be leaching traces of the gas. So yeah. It may be a case of "He who smelt it, dealt it".
  • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .retawriaf.> on Friday November 02, 2012 @09:22AM (#41852099) Homepage

    More limited than a rover, but much less expensive, and a lot less that could go wrong....

    Yes, (much, much) more limited than a rover, but no, not much less expensive in the end. You're talking a big and fairly capable mother platform to carry and communicate with more than one or two probes, and those don't come cheap. (Neither do the EDL systems for the probes.) And no, there isn't much less that could go wrong - each probe could go wrong, and you have a single point of failure in the mother platform.

    So, for not much less money and roughly the same level of mission risk - rather than getting comprehensive science on a single location, you get pretty much useless individual and unrelated data points from a variety of locations.

  • Re:Tradition (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @09:33AM (#41852177) Homepage

    Actually, it's even older than that: There's apparently a Sumerian tablet from 1900 BCE [reuters.com] with a fart joke. Aristophanes also was well known for writing fart jokes.

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