NPR : News

Mars Rover Data Dims Hope Of Finding Life On Red Planet

When the Mars Curiosity made its dramatic and first-of-its-kind landing on Mars in August of 2012, the hope was that the $2.5-billion rover could confirm what scientists had suspected: that there was life on Mars.

Today, in a paper released in the journal Science, researchers explain that if the Red Planet is harboring life, the instruments on the rover have been unable to sniff it out.

NPR's Joe Palca filed this report for our Newscast unit:

"Before Curiosity arrived at Mars a year ago, measurements taken from Earth and from spacecraft orbiting Mars had suggested there was a tiny amount of methane in the thin Martian atmosphere. That's intriguing because methane is produced by living organisms.

"In order to confirm those measurements, one of the instruments aboard the rover was specifically designed to measure what gasses are present on Mars.

"Now, reporting in the journal Science, scientists say they found virtually no methane in six separate air samples analyzed by the rover, less than 1.3 parts per billion if it's there at all making it unlikely that any biological organisms are producing methane on Mars today."

As The New York Times puts it, the findings are "crushing to the popular imagination." It's indisputable that part of the fascination with the Mars Curiosity mission was the potential for an earth-shattering finding.

"That's the mythology," Seth Shostak, a Seti astronomer, told the Times. "Mars is about life, not geology, as interesting as that is. That's the triumph of hope over measurement, and maybe it is."

All of that said, Curiosity, which tweets, sent a missive, keeping longer-term hope alive:

"Lack of methane doesn't mean Mars never supported life. Plenty of Earth organisms don't produce the gas."

Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of the study said: "It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements, and the progress in expanding knowledge is what's really important. We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit

WAMU 88.5

A Conversation With "Broad City" Co-Star Abbi Jacobson

What do Michelle Obama, Anna Wintour and Michael Jordan carry in their bags? Abbi Jacobson imagines the things you might find in her new illustrated book, "Carry This Book." We talk to the "Broad City" co-star about what you can learn from the contents of bags—and her success creating and starring in the hit Comedy Central show.

WAMU 88.5

New Approaches To Tackling Local Youth Hunger

The First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe and other regional leaders are exploring new, innovative ways to combat local food insecurity.

WAMU 88.5

What Washington Really Thinks of the Rest of America

Kojo explores the surprising findings of a Johns Hopkins survey on what D.C.'s federal workers and unelected policy makers really think of the American public.


Researchers Build 'Nightmare Machine'

An MIT project rolled out just in time for Halloween uses artificial intelligence to generate horror images.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.