Scientists find ‘source of methane on Mars

Olive Hawkins
April 3, 2019

During this time, the instrument noticed methane only once, which was on the same day Curiosity observed the sudden increase in methane on Mars.

The researchers write, "The results presented in this work not only corroborate previous detections by Curiosity but, in a broader perspective, might change our view of methane occurrence on Mars".

The two parallel experiments determined the most likely source of methane on Mars to be an ice sheet east of Gale Crater.

A second European spacecraft, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, is expected to shed more light on the mystery of Martian methane.

In 2013, the Mars Express spacecraft detected methane near Gale Crater on Mars. On gas and ice giants such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, plenty of methane is produced via chemical processes. The European Space Agency's Mars Express mission also caught the spike in methane levels on that date in 2013, proving that it wasn't a sensor malfunction or a mistaken reading by Curiosity. The next day, ESA's Mars Express probe captured air samples with a methane concentration of 15.5 parts per billion as it whizzed through the atmosphere above Gale Crater.

Finding methane (CH4) on Mars is very important for planetologists because "it could be an indicator of microbial life", notes the researcher.

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Now an worldwide team of experts have compared observations from two separate spacecraft, taken just one day apart in 2013, to find independent proof of methane on our neighboring planet.

"Our results support the idea that methane release on Mars might be characterized by small, transient geological events rather than a constantly replenishing global presence", said Frank Daerden, researcher at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Astronomy in Brussels. Nasa experts feel that the Gale crater could have been a very ancient lake once upon a time.

"We have developed a new approach to select, process and recover data", from the spectrometer, explains Marco Giuranna. "Since permafrost is an excellent seal for methane, it is possible that the ice here could trap subsurface methane and release it episodically along the faults that break through this ice", said Giuseppe Etiope from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, a co-author on one of the studies. Scientists estimate periodic melting causes the ice to release the compound in gas form.

One study then ran a million computer-modeled emissions scenarios for each section while another team studied images of the planet surface for features associated on Earth with the release of methane.

Shortly after Curiosity landed in 2012 in the Gale impact crater, "I made a decision to conduct a long-term monitoring of the Martian atmosphere" at this location, says the researcher, whose study is published in Nature Geoscience.

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