Curioser and curioser: Little Mars rover sniffs out highest ever levels of methane

He who smelt it dealt it?

The Mars Curiosity Rover has found unexpectedly high levels of methane on the red planet.

It is still not clear whether the source of the gas was the lettings off of microscopic organisms or whether it was produced by rocks interacting with water.

The gas was detected by the Rover's tunable laser spectrometer. It found methane at 21 parts per billion by volume in the Martian atmosphere.

But NASA will conduct more experiments this coming weekend to try and discover whether the reading represents a plume or something more substantial.

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA noted: "With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern."

The rover has found methane at a confusing variety of levels suggesting possible seasonal variation or specific plumes. The gas appears to be released from underneath the planet's surface, since it would not last long in the Martian atmosphere.

Beyond excitement over the possible existence of life on the planet at some point, methane could also be an important potential fuel source for vehicles, manned or unmanned, visiting the planet, provided they have enough oxygen to burn it.

NASA said it will be working with other researchers including the European Space Agency's Trace Gas Orbiter team, which has not detected any methane in just over a year of orbiting Mars. The full NASA release is here.

In man-child, vaguely Martian, news, Elon Musk sent Twitter into a flutter over the weekend by mixing up Mars and the Moon. Musk posted an image of the Moon during a lunar eclipse confusingly tagged with the slogan Occupy Mars.

Musk's followers hammered him for the error.

We can only hope the SpaceX CEO isn't in charge of navigating his proposed manned mission to Mars. Musk did follow up with a Monty Python clip so it's not all bad. ®

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