A Glint Of Light And A Hint Of Life: Mars Is Getting Very Interesting Right Now

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover spotted a strange glowing object that seemed to hover just above the surface of the Red Planet earlier this month.  

While the glint on Mars has captured the imagination of folks on social media, it was likely just sunlight, a cosmic ray or a camera artifact. But in an unrelated development days later, the rover detected something else ― and it could be a long-sought signal of possible microbial life on or inside the planet. 

The glowing object was captured on camera ― look at the right side of this raw image taken from the NASA website on June 16:

(Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

Here it is zoomed in:  

(Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

It doesn’t appear on any of the images snapped before or after, taken about 13 seconds apart, so if it was an object of some kind it moved quickly. More likely, however, it was nothing too out of the ordinary.

“In the thousands of images we’ve received from Curiosity, we see ones with bright spots nearly every week,” Justin Maki of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in 2014 when a similar flash of light made headlines. “These can be caused by cosmic-ray hits or sunlight glinting from rock surfaces, as the most likely explanations.” 

So, the flash of light was unlikely to be a sign of activity on the planet. 

But something else was detected on Mars last week that just might be a sign of life: methane. The New York Times reported that Curiosity detected a spike in methane, which, if confirmed, could hint of microbial life hidden beneath the surface of Mars. 

There were other possible explanations: 

The rover spent the weekend conducting follow-up tests in an attempt to confirm the results, with more analysis ongoing. NASA said the rover had detected methane in the past, and the planet seemed to have seasonal peaks and dips. 

Definitive answers could be tough to come by. 

“With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern,” Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center said in a news release. 

NASA is coordinating with the scientists working with the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter, which is orbiting Mars, to find the origin of the gas. 

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Spirit

While driving over the reddish rocks and soils of Mars, the rover's wheels dig below the thin dusty layer and reveal darker, brownish soils just below. The circular tracks are "pirouettes" that the rovers occasionally do to align their radio antennas for best possible communications. Spirit rover, Pancam image, mission sol (martian day) 141 (May 26, 2004). From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Spirit

Spirit's last Postcard of the Columbia Hills, taken from the plains of Gusev Crater, before the rover climbed up into the hills. Mission sol 149 (June 4, 2004). From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Spirit

A view from high in the Columbia Hills, looking over the rover's right solar panel "wing" and down into the Tennessee Valley. Just like on Earth, hills and ridges on Mars are windy places.The wind creates sand dunes and scours rocks; sometimes it also cleans the dust off the rover's solar panels! Spirit rover Pancam image, mission sol 582 (August 23, 2005). From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Spirit

Spirit shot this 360° false color Pancam view, called the "Seminole" panorama, on sols 672-677 (Nov. 23-28, 2005) while descending the southern slopes of Husband Hill. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Spirit

This Spirit Pancam false-color panorama from mission sols 748-751 (February 9-12, 2006) shows what could be finely-layered lithified ash fall deposits along the edge of an ancient, worn-down volcanic cinder cone called Home Plate. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Spirit

This Spirit Pancam sol 788 (April 12, 2006) mosaic shows a dramatic example of whiteish and yellowish salty soils dug up by the rover's wheels in what may once have been a hydrothermal vent near the ancient volcanic feature called Home Plate. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Spirit

This low-Sun panorama was shot from the Spirit Pancam, looking towards Husband Hill in the late afternoon of mission sol 813 (April 16, 2006). It seemed cooler to display the image in old-school sepia tones rather than plain old black-and-white. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Spirit

In late 2008, Spirit got bogged down in the soft salty soils around an ancient volcanic feature called Home Plate. This Pancam sol 1933 (June 10, 2009) false-color mosaic reveals the lovely variety of colors and textures in the soils where the rover is currently still stuck. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Spirit

This Spirit Pancam false-color postcard, taken on mission sol 2114 (January 4, 2010) shows a volcanic hill called Von Braun, which could be the rover's next exploration target once the rover emerges from its long winter hibernation. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Opportunity

A Postcard from the Opportunity rover's Pancam taken on sols 58 to 60 (March 23-25, 2004) that we called the "Lion King" panorama, because it was acquired from a majestic outlook just outside the rim of 22-meter wide Eagle crater. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Opportunity

Sometimes use the rovers' UV and infrared imaging capability to create "false color" images of martian terrains, like this view of sand dunes at the bottom of Endurance crater. False color photos are scientifically useful, but they are often just as valuable as garish and lovely artistic renderings that would make Andy Warhol proud... Opportunity rover Pancam image, mission sol 207 (August 23, 2004). From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Opportunity

Postcard of the crater created after the Opportunity rover's heat shield was jettisoned during the January 24, 2004 landing. This is the youngest (known) impact crater on Mars. Opportunity Pancam mosaic, mission sol 330 (December 28, 2004). From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Opportunity

An Opportunity false-color self-portrait mosaic taken from Erebus crater on mission sols 652-666 (November 23-28, 2005) was computer processed into a vertical projection to simulate looking down on the rover and surrounding outcrop rocks. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Opportunity

Having completed the study of Victoria crater in late 2008, Opportunity is now heading towards an even larger crater called Endeavour. Even using new driving methods like the obstacle-avoidance software shown tested here in this sol 1162 (May 2, 2007) Pancam postcard, the rover won't get to Endeavour until sometime in 2011 or maybe even 2012. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Opportunity

The exploration of Victoria crater by Opportunity revealed some of the most dramatic and picturesque landscapes yet encountered by either rover. This Pancam sol 1167 (May 7, 2007) false-color mosaic shows some of the steep, layered cliffs of the promontory called Cape of Good Hope. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Opportunity

Opportunity occasionally encounters iron and nickel meteorites while driving across the plains of Meridiani. This Pancam sol 1961 (July 30, 2009) false-color mosaic shows a close up of one called Block Island, which is about 70 cm (28 in) across. From "Postcards from Mars" by Jim Bell; Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

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