The methane spikes, announced by scientists at a press conference Tuesday, may be the easier issue for rover scientists to tackle since it is basically a waiting game to see if the plumes reoccur.
Between late November 2013 and late January 2014, samples of the atmosphere collected and analyzed by Curiosity showed a 10-fold increase in concentrations of methane, a gas which on Earth is strongly tied to life.
When the next sample was taken two months later, the gas was gone, a mystery in and of itself since methane gas should last for 300 years in the Martian atmosphere.
The rover, which is now exploring the base Mount Sharp, a three-mile high mound of sediment rising from the floor of its Gale Crater landing site, will continuously sniff the air for methane, said lead scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
If higher concentrations are detected, the rover's onboard chemistry lab will attempt to enrich the samples by scrubbing away atmospheric carbon dioxide, leaving more methane for analysis. Detailed studies of how quickly the methane dissipates could provide clues about its origin and what causes its periodic release. For now, scientists suspect the methane burp came from somewhere in or near Gale Crater.