back to article Astroboffins baffled as Curiosity rover takes larger gasps of oxygen in Martian summers

A new Martian mystery has left scientists baffled. The oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere seems to rise every spring and summer and fall during autumn and winter, and scientists have no idea why. The startling discovery was made after the team analysed data from the Gale Crater taken by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) …

  1. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Boffin

    Can anyone think of a chemical process?

    Something that consumes oxygen or at least slows its release from minerals during lower light levels and temperatures associated with Martian fall and winter?

    1. et tu, brute?
      Alien

      Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

      Hmm, yeah... the red weed that gives the planet it's distincting colour?

      1. Kane Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

        No one would have believed...

        1. Symon Silver badge
          Alien

          Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

          A million to one, he said.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

            and still they came.

            1. ForthIsNotDead
              Alien

              Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

              Ogilvy the astronomer assured me we were in no danger. He was convinced there could be no living thing on that remote, forbidding planet.

              1. LeahroyNake Silver badge

                Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

                Dum Dum Dum, Dum Dum Dum to te too toot ee tooo.

                1. Geoff Wayne

                  Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

                  I hope to see you soon folks!

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

      I've just been reading about the interstellar #2 and that has a huge amount of Oxygen around it. This. it seems comes from water sublimation being ionised by solar radiation (UV presumably) and I can see exactly the same thing happening on Mars as the sun warms subsurface ice during the 'summer'.

    3. Richard Boyce

      Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

      There was no mention of how the concentration of CO changes during the seasons. That's unstable in the presence of oxygen, which suggests a chemical source for that too, and possibly a related one. I also note that the concentration of CO is lower than that of O2.

      Haemoglobin comes to mind. There are a lot of iron compounds in Martial soil. Could there be some naturally-occuring compounds that loosely bind both CO2 and CO, and which are being heated and irradiated with UV to release some oxygen while continuing to bind some CO?

      1. quxinot Silver badge

        Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

        That brings real teeth to the concept of having one's blood run cold.

      2. Saruman the White Bronze badge

        Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

        Haemoglobin is a very complex molecule that will be easily destroyed by the perchlorates present in the Martian soil, as well as the high concentrations of UV during the Martian day. On this basis I would suggest that there is limited scope for any haemoglobin (or in anything functionally similar) to be present in any measurable quantities in the Martian soil.

        1. Muscleguy Silver badge

          Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

          Richard was not positing the presence of haemoglobin but some sort of iron based process equivalent to it. If the iron were chemically chelated in a similar way to haem molecules* caging iron that might explain it.

          *Haemoglobin is not the only one. Muscles are red because they are packed with myoglobin, which actually has a higher affinity for O2 than haemoglobin. Has to be to rip the O2 from it.

          I'll take my Physiologist/muscle biologist hat off now.

    4. Grikath
      Boffin

      Re: Can anyone think of a chemical process?

      Chemical processes? Several, all part of metabolic pathways employed by current-day micro-organisms here on Earth that happily live in conditions that would be comparable to current-day subsurface Mars if sufficient liquid water ( for a given value of "water". What they like isn't potable, quite often lethal, to use frail oxygen-hardened multicellulars..) is available.

      As any biologist who paid attention to his microbiology and cell biology courses could tell you. Or quite a few chemistry majors.. After all, the anaerobic squad does stuff they would love to learn how to do efficiently. Like splitting H2O ( with O2 being actually a poisonous waste product ) , or turning CO2 into CH4 ( with, oh dear, H2O as a by-product).

      From a scientific point of view, with what we currently know of the evolution of our planet, and the life on it, life on Old Mars was certainly possible. Some of it may well have evolved to cope over the millennia and still exist, so a biotic origin of the fluctuations described cannot be ruled out. In fact, it's a tantalising match. Now we just simply need to find the critters...

      Hopefully using robots first.. Although finding out the hard way that we humans are a very tasty snack for martian microbes would very much clinch the matter. And isn't all that far-fetched.. Things like tetanus and botulism are reminders that anaerobics tend to do very nasty things to our system.

  2. Esme
    Coat

    I, for one..

    ..welcome our new microbial Martian Overlords!

    1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: I, for one..

      Blasted humans, we shine green lights at you and its the bledding bacteria everyone worships instead.

      We should send down our hypnotizing screens to brain wash you all once and for all.

  3. Chris G Silver badge

    Emitting methane and oxygen?

    Sounds like the plant based Martian Sand Cow to me.

  4. Ragarath

    The book got it wrong...

    Researchers have no idea what could be pumping and dumping oxygen on Mars

    ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS—EXCEPT EUROPAMARS ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE.

    1. VinceH
      Facepalm

      Re: The book got it wrong...

      Oops.

      Um.

      Yeah.

      About that...

      *gulp*

  5. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
    Coat

    The Zen Masters of Mars ...

    have learnt to breathe very, very slowly. I bet their heartbeat is at most once per Sol. Let's face it, there's not much to do on Mars anyway, so why rush anything

    I'll get me coat

  6. Just Enough
    Boffin

    Seasons

    "Carbon dioxide freezes over the Martian North and South pole in winter, lowering the air pressure across the planet’s atmosphere."

    Is it just me, or does this statement make no sense? Like Earth, Mars has seasons because is tilted on its axis. "Winter" is not a season that exists across the entire planet, and so any lowering of air pressure could only apply to one hemisphere at a time. (If that's even possible.)

    Would the freezing of CO2 on one pole not be offset by the melting at the other?

    1. Saruman the White Bronze badge

      Re: Seasons

      Mars is further away from the Sun during the south pole "winter", so more CO2 freezes out there than on the North Pole. So the amount of CO2 liberated at the north pole is more than compensated for by the amount of CO2 freezing at the south pole - hence the net drop in pressure.

      You can easily see this effect - the south polar ice cap on Mars is *much* bigger than the north polar ice cap.

      1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        Re: Seasons

        If you were an observer on the Northern hemisphere of Mars, you would surely experience Summer and Winter seasons opposite to that in the South? Or is the change in solar distance so great that the seasons are mainly driven by that mechanism rather han the planet's tilt, thus making the seasons the same over the entire planet as this article implies?

        1. Saruman the White Bronze badge

          Re: Seasons

          No, you would experience Summer & Winter seasons the same as the Earth (the axil tilt of Mars is very similar to that of the Earth). However the length of the seasons will be much longer. Also summer in the northern hemisphere will be warmer (Mars is closer to the Sun then, also the mean altitude of the northern hemisphere is much lower so the air pressure, such as it is, is higher).

          Of course, warm on Mars still means sub-zero!

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Methan, oxygen ...

    You really don't want anyone to smoke on this planet !

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge
      Flame

      Re: Methan, oxygen ...

      Don't worry, it already has a built-in CO2 extinguisher...

  8. Rol Silver badge

    Neighbours!

    Has anyone created a Martian atmosphere in the lab and then tried lowering the temperature to mimic a Martian winter?

    The frozen CO2 might hold an higher concentration of oxygen between its molecules, than we see when it is a gas.

  9. Rol Silver badge

    Home and Away!

    Could it be that the densities of the gases have them slightly layering during winter and thus presenting lower concentrations of oxygen at ground level?

    1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

      Re: Home and Away!

      Interesting idea, however I suspect the fast winds provide a lot of mixing.

  10. Rol Silver badge

    Cell Block H

    Might the freezing of CO2 cause it to be expelled from the soil allowing oxygen to replace it?

  11. Rol Silver badge

    Skippy

    The increased energies during summer would have the gases bouncing around far more and likely as not mixing more consistently.

  12. Rol Silver badge

    Flipper

    The oxygen might have found something more interesting on the other side of the planet

  13. Killing Time

    Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

    It seems that since the Viking 'discovery' and the fossilized bacteria 'discovery' during Clinton's tenure, no one seems to want to stick their head above the parapet for fear of the shelling they are likely to receive. Possibly, as given the last announcement involved the incumbent POTUS, they think their credibility would be ruined for life if Agent Orange jumped on the bandwagon.

    Alternately, they are playing the long game to build the value of manned exploration of our companion planet. Whatever the reason, the mounting evidence is getting more and more compelling, even if no one will actually say it.

    1. Geoff May (no relation)

      Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

      Just once I would like to read something on The Reg where some pillock does not fucking mention Trump nor Brexit.

      Too much to fucking ask, I know but one can always dream ...

      1. Glen 1 Silver badge

        Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

        "Trump nor Brexit."

        You mean like Brexit being a factor in Tesla building its european plant in Germany rather than the UK?

        After all those "electric vehicle renaissance" platitudes from the Brexit lot. Inconvenient truth in more ways than one.

        Serious point though - As we get closer to the election, things will get worse (more political) before they get better.

      2. Killing Time

        Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

        'Just once I would like to read something on The Reg where some pillock does not fucking mention Trump nor Brexit.'

        Politics affects everything in life that requires money and resources, including science.

        Get over it.

      3. quxinot Silver badge

        Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

        Imagine the articles if Trump starts a Brexit-themed Storage-as-a-service startup, using Agile Devops for implementation.

        Or not. I have a headache already.

        1. zuckzuckgo

          Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

          Well there are Trexit (Trump Exit) proceedings going on in the US now.

    2. boltar Silver badge

      Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

      No one will say it because they is no proof. Extraordinary claims - ie life on mars - require extraordinary proof and given standard chemical reactions can mimic many of lifes abilities when it comes to reactions and gasses here is little yet to get excited about.

      Also bear in mind that oxygen was a poison to early life on earth and probably would be to any mars life too unless it had also miraculously evolved photosynthesis.

      1. Killing Time

        Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

        'No one will say it because they is no proof.'

        My observation is presicly about that. Prior work has been shot down in flames to the extent that the possibility is now dismissed to the point that appeals are going out to explain the phenomenon with hypothetical chemistry. No one is prepared to risk their reputation.

        It's telling that you jumped on photosynthesis, and then dismiss it out of hand as if it is impossible panspermia could be a possibility.

        Mars was potentially habitable far earlier than Earth if current knowledge is to be believed.

      2. JassMan Silver badge
        Trollface

        Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

        " chemical reactions can mimic many of lifes abilities "

        That may be because life IS a chemical reaction.

        1. boltar Silver badge

          Re: Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

          Thats why I qualified it by saying standard chemical reactions. Biochemistry is very clever and can burrow through the sort of energy gradients that standard chemistry would require in order to create the same sort of end products.

  14. phuzz Silver badge
    Alien

    Easy option

    Why not just ask amanfrommars1?

    1. Dr. G. Freeman

      Re: Easy option

      We wouldn't understand the answer

      1. I'm Brian and so's my wife

        Re: Easy option

        You can't handle the truth!

        1. DiViDeD Silver badge

          Re: Easy option

          Certainly, nobody can handle aMfM's truth - not without a couple of stiff drinks inside them.

    2. IanTP
      Coat

      Re: Easy option

      Watch The Skies!

      Mines the one with a copy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the pocket.

    3. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

      Re: Easy option

      Just because he's from Mars doesn't make him a chemist.

  15. batfink Silver badge
    Alien

    Easy

    All the Martian tribes live on the surface during the nice months, then go back underground for the rest of the year.

    As their respiratory cycle is clearly the opposite of ours, oxygen levels rise when they're at the surface.

    The methane comes from their livestock, which everyone knows are regularly cownapped from Earth.

    No mystery at all.

    Icon, obvs.

    1. Reg Reader 1

      Re: Easy

      and that is the one reason I have no cows in my yard!

  16. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Maybe John Carter do exist, and he's busy getting Mars ready for habitation

  17. LeahroyNake Silver badge

    Matt Damon

    It's him I tell you, growing potatoes in his poo!

    Brings to mind one of my favourite movie quotes ever 'I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the best botanist on the planet.'

    1. FrogsAndChips Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: Matt Damon

      I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but it was a book quote long before it became a movie quote.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sounds like we

    Need to "Science the s**t out of this"

  19. low_resolution_foxxes

    We're talking seasonal variations of 0.16% and 0.21% atmospheric concentration right? Not 1% to 20%?

    So not gigantic differences, plus the instrument accuracy is not listed?

    OK the astro guy says it's a real effect... But gravitational layering at different masses and temperatures, plus minor rock gas deviance, chemistry, = plausible explanation?

  20. Aussie Doc
    Alien

    Methane

    Clearly the methane issue is the Martian cows only popping out for a short while at a time.

    Probably don't look like that, though --->

  21. Random Comment

    A local anomoly

    I presume the astroboffins have ruled out a local effect of the rover driving over the soil releasing who-knows-what and then measuring it?

  22. jamesdagger

    Ooh

    Laaaaaaa

  23. Dr Kerfuffle

    Damn those pesky kids!

  24. Mike 137 Bronze badge

    "It might be organic life, but more likely chemistry says NASA"

    Organic life is chemistry. It's quite appalling that a supposedly scientific body such as NASA can perpetrate such a solecism.

  25. MCMLXV

    Sid Fallowfield

    <bumpkin>Of course, the aaanswer lies in the soil...</bumpkin>

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