Photo: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS /HANDOUT/Getty Images

NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected a large burst of methane gas on Mars, possibly indicating microbes are at work on the red planet, reports the New York Times.

Why it matters: If this methane is actually being belched out by microbes on Mars, it would be a paradigm shifting discovery, showing that life exists elsewhere in the universe. But we have a long way to go before assuming the reading from Curiosity means proof of life on Mars.

The big picture: If confirmed, this wouldn't be the first time Curiosity has detected methane on Mars either. The rover also monitored a spike of the gas in 2013, and other spacecraft have detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. Geological processes can also account for methane on Earth and potentially on the red planet.

Details: Per the Times: "In a measurement taken on Wednesday, NASA’s Curiosity rover discovered startlingly high amounts of methane in the Martian air, a gas that on Earth is usually produced by living things. The data arrived back on Earth on Thursday, and by Friday, scientists working on the mission were excitedly discussing the news, which has not yet been announced by NASA."

  • NASA responded to the story on Saturday, urging caution:

Yes, but: It’s important to meet this report with a healthy dose of measured optimism.

  • Scientists are still working to take more measurements that will either bolster or diminish this initial finding.
  • The discovery also has yet to go through peer review — the scientific process by which these claims are verified and eventually published — so it’s best to take it all with a grain of salt, at least for now.

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