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Curiosity discovers a puzzling acid mystery on Mars

  Curiosity mud samples water
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover took this selfie on May 12, 2019 (the 2,405th Martian Day, or Sun, of the mission). NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

NASA's Curiosity rover continues to make discoveries that challenge our understanding of the Martian environment. The latest strange puzzle that taxes scientists is the variation in oxygen levels on the planet's surface, which discovered Curiosity's portable chemistry lab, Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM).

In his journey around the Gale crater, curiosity discovered the Martian atmosphere has a composition at the surface of 95% by volume carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1

.9% argon (Ar), 0.16 % molecular oxygen (O2) and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). Nitrogen and argon levels follow a predictable seasonal pattern and change relative to the amount of carbon dioxide. However, the oxygen levels did not match the expected pattern and increased by as much as 30% in the spring and summer.

  Curiosity oxygen levels in March Seasonal Crater 1
Melissa Trainer / Dan Gallagher / NASA Goddard [19659004] The different oxygen levels have scientists confused. "The first time we saw it, it was just amazing," said Sushil Atreya, a professor of climate and space science at the University of Michigan, in a statement.

The researchers tried different hypotheses to explain oxygen variation. They checked if the SAM instrument was working properly and looked at whether carbon dioxide molecules could break apart in the atmosphere to create oxygen, but none of the methods yielded results.

"We are struggling to explain this," Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and research leader, said in the statement. "The fact that oxygen behavior cannot be repeated perfectly every season makes us think that it is not a matter of atmospheric dynamics. There must be some chemical source and sink that we cannot yet account for."

Possibility is that oxygen levels are related to another Martian puzzle: the fluctuating methane levels on the planet. have found a link between methane and oxygen levels: It seems that the two gases are fluctuating at certain times.

"We are beginning to see this strange correlation between methane and oxygen for a good part of the March year," Atreya said. “I think there's something to it. I just don't have the answers yet. Nobody does that. "

Although both oxygen and methane can be produced biologically, their presence does not necessarily indicate life on the planet. They can also be produced chemically, with water and rocks. Curiosity can only detect the levels of gases, not their origin, so the source of this mystery remains unknown at the moment.

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

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