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Curiosity discovers an enigmatic oxygen mystery on Mars



  Curious Sound Tastes Water
The NASA rover Curiosity Mars made this selfie on May 12, 2019 (the 2,405th Mars Day or Sol of Mission). NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

NASA's Curiosity Rover continues to make discoveries that challenge our understanding of the Martian environment. The most recent puzzling puzzle scientists are dealing with is the variation in oxygen levels on the surface of the planet, as found in Curiosity's portable sample analysis at Mars (SAM) chemistry. Composition at the surface of 95 vol% carbon dioxide (CO 2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N 2), 1

.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O 2) and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). The nitrogen and argon values ​​follow a predictable seasonal pattern that changes relative to the amount of carbon dioxide. The oxygen levels, however, did not meet the expected patterns and increased by up to 30% in the spring and summer.

  Curiosity Oxygen Values ​​Mars Seasonal Storm Crater 1
Melissa Trainer / Dan Gallagher / NASA Goddard [19659004] Scientists have been baffled by the differences in oxygen levels. "The first time we saw this was just mind-blowing," said Sushil Atreya, professor of climate and space sciences at the University of Michigan, in a statement.

The scientists tried different hypotheses to explain the oxygen variation. They checked that the SAM instrument was working properly and investigated whether carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere could decay and produce oxygen. Both approaches, however, brought no results.

"We're trying to explain that," said Melissa coach The Planet Explorer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and head of research, said in the statement. "The fact that oxygen behavior is not perfectly reproducible in every season suggests that this is not a problem related to the dynamics of the atmosphere, it must be a chemical source and sink that we do not yet have

One possibility is that the oxygen levels are related to another Martian riddle: the fluctuating methane levels on the planet. In addition to the expected seasonal variations in methane content, Curiosity has occasionally detected methane peaks of up to 60%. The scientists can not yet explain this finding, but they may have found a relationship between methane and oxygen levels: It seems as if the two gases fluctuate together at certain times.

"We are starting to recognize this devastating correlation between methane and oxygen for much of the Martian year," Atreya said. "I think there's something there, I just do not have any answers, no one does that."

Although both oxygen and methane can be biologically produced, their presence does not necessarily indicate life on the planet. They can also be produced chemically by water and rocks. Curiosity can only determine the content of the gases and not their origin, which is why the source of this puzzle remains unknown for the time being.

The research was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

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