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Methane on Mars

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I used to be very excited to learn concerning the discovery revealed final week by NASA’s Curiosity rover of the seasonal variation within the quantity of methane in Mars’ ambiance.  Curiosity discovered that the common methane focus diversified from zero.24 components per billion (ppb) within the northern hemisphere winter to round zero.65 ppb in the summertime.

This was extensively reported on this planet’s media e.g.t he New York Times.The fascinating reality is that, on Mars, methane ought to have a really brief lifetime as a result of it’s destroyed by ultraviolet gentle from the Solar. The presence of any methane in Mars’ ambiance implies that there should be some course of, as but unknown, frequently producing it.  On Earth practically all methane is organic in origin and is generated by microorganisms as a waste product. The seasonal variation in methane in Mars’s ambiance is definitely in keeping with life, however there could also be different non-biological processes making this methane.

A joint mission between the European Area Company (ESA) and the Russian house company, referred to as the TGO has simply began scientific operations and will shed extra gentle on the origin of this methane. I’ve subsequently hooked up an up to date model of my submit  about this spacecraft.


Two years in the past on 14 March 2016 the ExoMars Hint Gasoline Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft was launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan on a journey to Mars. The aim of its mission is to review how the distribution of the gasoline methane varies with location on the planet’s floor and over the course of time.

Trace Gas orbiter

Picture from ESA


What’s the significance of methane on Mars?

In comparison with the Earth, Mars has a really skinny ambiance. Its floor strain is simply zero.6% of that of the Earth. The ambiance primarily consists of carbon dioxide. Nonetheless, it additionally accommodates a small quantity of methane, round zero.5 components per billion. This can be a puzzle to scientists as a result of the ultraviolet gentle from the Solar ought to break up any methane inside 600 years, and Mars is four.5 billions outdated. Subsequently there should be some course of occurring which is continually replenishing the methane.


Mars- Picture from NASA

There are numerous prospects for the origin of this methane. One is that it’s launched by geological processes similar to volcanoes or a chemical course of occurring inside rocks referred to as serpentinisation. This isn’t as thrilling because it sounds (no snakes, I’m afraid) – it’s merely a gradual chemical response between olivine (a mineral discovered on Mars) carbon dioxide and water which may produce methane.  One other is that there’s a giant reservoir of methane locked away within the ice under the Martian floor and because the temperature varies some of the ice might soften, thus releasing the methane into the ambiance.

A captivating chance is that the methane is created by microorganisms under the planet’s floor.  On Earth greater than 90% of methane within the ambiance is produced by dwelling organisms (ESA 2014). There are over 50 species of microorganisms often known as methanogens that reside off natural matter and produce methane as a waste product.  These microorganisms are discovered not solely in wetlands (producing what is named marsh gasoline) and within the soil but additionally within the guts of many animals similar to cows and people.  On the threat of sounding considerably vulgar, the methane gasoline escapes from each cattle and ourselves within the type of flatulence.



What is going to the TGO measure?

The TGO will measure how the methane content material of Mars’s ambiance varies with house and time. It should additionally be capable of measure the focus of different gases similar to sulphur dioxide (which on Earth is generally related to volcanic exercise) and natural compounds similar to ethane, methanol and formaldehyde (which on Earth are produced by dwelling organisms).  Though the TGO gained’t be capable of say for particular what the sources of the methane discovered on Mars are, if the focus of methane have been discovered to range with the seasons and likewise if methane have been discovered along with different natural chemical substances it might level in the direction of a organic origin.

How lengthy with the mission be?

The TGO is a joint mission between the European Area Company (ESA) and the Russian Area Company (Roscosmos).  The mission is described in additional element on the ESA web site  (2018).  It arrived at Mars in October 2016 and was initially positioned in a excessive elliptical orbit across the planet. It took till March 2018 to progressively manoeuvre into the supposed orbit and, now it’s within the right place, will spend the following 5 years mapping the methane distribution. This can be a low round orbit solely 400 km from the planet’s floor. The orbit is inclined at an angle of 74 levels to Mars’s equator. This excessive inclination permits the spacecraft to see a lot of the planet’s floor.

The excessive inclination of the TGO’s orbit implies that, because the planet rotates, all space of Mars between latitudes -74 levels South and 74 levels North will at some stage be straight under the TGO.

Footnote- Schiaparelli

When the TGO arrived at Mars, it it deployed a small lander referred to as Schiaparelli. This was an ‘add on’ to the principle mission and was solely designed to function for every week on the Martian floor. Schiaparelli was supposed to measure the wind velocity and path, humidity, strain and floor temperature, and decide the transparency of the ambiance. Sadly, when Schiaparelli arrived within the higher areas of the Martian ambiance, a parachute to gradual it down did not open correctly and it crashed into the floor at hundreds of km/h and can was destroyed by the influence.



ESA (2014) The enigma of methane on Mars, Accessible at:http://exploration.esa.int/mars/46038-methane-on-mars/ (Accessed: 20 March 2016).

ESA (2018) Robotic exploration of Mars, Accessible at:http://exploration.esa.int/mars/46124-mission-overview/ (Accessed: 12 June 2018)

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