The New York Times article NASA Rover on Mars Detects Puff of Gas That Hints at Possibility of Life describes the newest detection of a "whiff" of methane on Mars.

The article states that the level was 21 ppb, the largest concentration ever reported:

When Curiosity arrived on Mars in 2012, it looked for methane and found nothing, or at least less than 1 part per billion in the atmosphere. Then, in 2013 it detected a sudden spike, up to 7 parts per billion that lasted at least a couple of months.

The methane ebbed away.

The measurement this week found 21 parts per billion of methane, or three times the 2013 spike.

Even before this week’s discovery, the mystery of methane has been deepening.

Curiosity scientists developed a technique that enabled the rover to detect even tinier amounts of methane with its existing tools. The gas seems to rise and fall with the red planet’s seasons. A new analysis of old Mars Express readings confirmed Curiosity’s 2013 findings. One day after Curiosity reported a spike of methane, the orbiter, passing over Curiosity’s location, also measured a spike. (emphasis added)

I am wondering if the Mars 2020 rover will have a trace gas detection capability the same as Curiosity's, or if it is improved in any way, building on experience gained from analysis using what the developed "...technique that enabled the rover to detect even tinier amounts of methane with its existing tools."


1 Answer 1


Will the Mars 2020 rover's sensitivity to methane be better than Curiosity's?

No, Mars 2020 rover's sensitivity to atmospheric methane will be nonexistent. Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars or SAM with its quadrupole mass spectrometer (QMS), gas chromatograph (GC), and tunable laser spectrometer (TLS) will have no counterparts on the streamlined Mars 2020 rover.

Tl, Dr: It's always great to detect more methane, but the Mars 2020 rover is playing a more sophisticated game. The search for life, as well as for technological solutions for manned exploration, is moving to a more serious stage.

This short description from NASA includes a difference between the rovers not in atmospheric analysis, but in rock sampling. The 2020 rover will include a coring drill and will not only retrieve core samples from the rock, but also store them for later transport to Earth-based labs for more detailed analysts than is possible on either rover (the return to Earth will have to be done on a future mission, possibly a manned mission).

NASA indicates in this overview that Mars 2020 will move into a new stage. Having already seen various circumstantial evidence that Mars was (still is?) habitable, the new rover will search (or at least enable such a search) for direct signs of life. The 2020 rover will also work on technological solutions needed for future human exploration of Mars, including searches for subsurface water and a possible method for producing oxygen.

Wikipedia gives a list of major payload items. Several spectrometer cameras are listed; these are focused on the mineralogy and organic chemistry at the surface/in rocks as opposed to any atmospheric chemistry analysis (other instruments will assess physical conditions in the atmosphere). Like the absence of NASA references to atmospheric chemistry analysis, this shows the focus moving away from methane in the atmosphere to more direct analysis at the possible source of any life and organic material.


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