NASA may have just hit the holy grail with the possible discovery of methane on Mars. The curiosity Rover has just detected a huge spike in methane levels that cannot be explained away as a natural geological feature. Scientists aren’t certain at this point what is causing the spikes, though one theory – the one researchers have their fingers crossed for – proposes that the methane is formed by a bacteria-like organism.

95% of the methane produced on Earth is formed by microbial organisms. If this is what is causing the methane spike on Mars, then this could very well be the discovery of the century. Granted, it’s no intelligent life or E.T., but it does prove that life is capable outside our own planet. The rover will now be testing for the possibility of life on the red planet with further rover missions underway and planned for 2020.

Earlier satellite observations have detected small plumes of methane on Mars, though these pale in comparison to the one discovered by the Rover. The source of methane was discovered on the planet’s Gale Crater, where researchers previously studied the area’s soil and found evidence of water molecules, suggesting that water may have once flourished eons ago.

Scientists have also proposed a more mundane theory, which suggests that the methane is produced from the degradation of organic material caused by prolonged exposure to sunrays.

Scientist Sushil Atreya also proposed another theory in which the methane is released after trapped ice molecules become condensed and gushes out in large bursts from pressure caused by thermal stress.

As of right now, all NASA researchers can do is speculate and hypothesize, though the discovery is certainly a morale booster.

The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in August 2012 and spent most of its time at Gale Crater. Since then, it has been painstakingly scanning the rocky samples and air in the hopes of detecting the ingredients conducive for life. The rover can also deploy a special technique in which it releases a burst of carbon dioxide into its surroundings, which amplifies the residual chemistry of the area, thus helping to detect even the faintest traces of elements like methane. Extensive study of the gas’ carbon atoms and isotopes also has to be done to determine whether the methane is of biological or geological origin.

For the rest of us, discovery of simple microbial life may not seem like a big deal. However, if the methane on Mars is indeed of biological origin, then the findings are huge. While Mars may not be the home to little green men and Martians, it could still be capable of supporting the simplest life forms as we know it.

[photo credit: Euclid vanderKroew]