A scientific instrument developed for the Mars Curiosity rover to detect methane on the Red Planet's surface is being adapted to sniff out gas leaks on Earth, NASA scientists say.

The laser-based instrument, designed by engineers at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to look for signs of methane on Mars is now being incorporated into a device for a much more humble but no less important use here on Earth, they say.

Methane makes up much of natural gas here on Earth, and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in California is working with JPL to create a hand-held instrument intended to be capable of quickly tracking track down potentially dangerous gas leaks so they can be repaired.

Expected to be available for use in 2015, the detector will be part of an effort to reduce leaks from natural gas pipelines to cut down on emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane.

It will also have on important safety use for utilities such as PG&E, which was recently fined $1.4 billion as a result of a pipeline explosion in 2010 in San Bruno, Calif., that destroyed numbers of houses in a neighborhood and killed eight people.

 A new law in California requires the state's Public Utilities Commission to begin minimizing such pipeline leaks.

"Our pursuit of this technology is evidence of our commitment to our mission of becoming the safest, most reliable utility in the country," said Nick Stavropoulos, PG&E's executive vice president of gas operations. "We are using out-of-this-world technology to find and fix even the smallest leaks in our system."

In its original form, the instrument is part of the Tunable Laser Spectrometer on the Curiosity rover, a portion of its Sample Analysis at Mars suite of instruments.

Methane has been detected in the Red Planet's atmosphere in the past, but in miniscule amounts. Since methane can remain stable in the Martian atmosphere for only around 300 years, whatever generated the gas must have done so fairly recently, scientists say.

It may have come from comet impacts or interactions between rock and water, but some scientists suggest it could also have been a byproduct of Martian life that once existed -- or more controversially may even now be living -- just below the planet's surface.

The next spacecraft headed for Mars, the European Space Agency's ExoMars probe set for launch in 2016, will specifically look for biosignatures of Martian life, including methane.

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