"OSIRIS Mars true color" by ESA / CC BY-SA 3.0

A Startling Spike on Mars

Jul 3, 2019

By Marina Koren

If humans ever discovered life on Mars, this is how it might start, with a breaking-news alert, heralding a startling development well beyond Earth.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, The New York Times sent a bulletin: “Mars is belching a large amount of methane gas. It’s a sign of possible life on the red planet.”

NASA quickly published a press release acknowledging the detection, which, the Times had reported, marked the largest amount of methane ever registered by the Curiosity rover, a NASA mission that touched down on the red planet in 2012. But after that, the agency went quiet. The news of the detection came from an email between scientists on the Curiosity team that was leaked to the Times. It wasn’t supposed to be known, at least not yet. And there’s no room for nuance in a breaking-news alert.

Like the Times, NASA provided an important caveat: many things can produce methane on Mars. Alien life is on that list, but there are other sources far more likely.

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