The newly detected gas signatures will help scientists more accurately determine whether methane is present in Mars’ atmosphere. The presence of the foul-smelling gas on Mars has both baffled and excited scientists, as it could be a possible sign of alien life. Methane can be produced through geological or biological means, making it a potential biosignature for Mars and exoplanets beyond our solar system.
But the presence of methane on Mars has been a hotly debated topic, with a number of conflicting detections made since at least 2003.
A European Space Agency (ESA) probe has now found never-seen-before signatures of CO2 and O3 along wavelengths where scientists expected to detect methane.
The signatures were picked up by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been studying Mars’ atmosphere for more than two years.
Kevin Olsen of the University of Oxford, who penned one report on the recent findings, said: “These features are both puzzling and surprising.
“They lie over the exact wavelength range where we expected to see the strongest signs of methane.
“Before this discovery, the CO2 feature was completely unknown, and this is the first time ozone on Mars has been identified in this part of the infrared wavelength.”
The Red Planet’s atmosphere is nearly 100 times thinner than Earth’s and is dominated by CO2, followed by trace amounts of nitrogen, argon, oxygen, carbon monoxide and other elements.
Both CO2 and O3 have been previously detected by ESA’s Mars Express satellite, but not in the range where TGO hunts for methane.
These features are both puzzling and surprising
Kevin Olsen, University of Oxford
Alexander Trokhimovskiy of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia, said: “Discovering an unforeseen CO2 signature where we hunt for methane is significant.
“This signature could not be accounted for before, and may, therefore, have played a role in detections of small amounts of methane at Mars.”
Although methane can be released into the atmosphere through geological processes, on Earth, most of the gas is produced by life.
Atmospheric methane is produced by methanogens – bacteria that create methane as a byproduct of metabolism – as well as by cows and by humans.
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The methane mystery on Mars is exciting because the gas is known to break down in just 400 years.
The detections, therefore, suggest the gas was produced or released in the relative past.
In June 2019, NASA scientists behind the Curiosity rover mission detected about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv) of methane – the largest amount of methane ever measured by the mission.
However, it was unclear what the source of the methane was and follow-up measurements a week later produced significantly lower results.
Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center said: “With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern.”
Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “The methane mystery continues.
“We’re more motivated than ever to keep measuring and put our brains together to figure out how methane behaves in the Martian atmosphere.”
If the Martian methane is biological, it could be generated by microbes miles below the planet’s surface.
Microbial life on Earth has been found as low as 1.8 miles underground.
Another possibility is the gas was created by microbes millions of years ago but has remained trapped under ice and is periodically released into the atmosphere.
ESA said: “Concentrations of methane have been observed in 2003 and 2006 in three specific regions of Mars: Terra Sabae, Nili Fossae and Syrtis Major, and data suggest that water once flowed over these areas.
“Deep liquid water areas below the ice layer would be able to provide a habitat for microorganisms, or a favourable place for the hydro-geochemical production of methane.”
ESA will attempt to unravel the mystery with the launch of its ExoMars Rover in 2022.
The rover will drill into the planet’s surface to search for chemical and morphological signatures of life.
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