Research

Scientists Discover Potential Source of Methane on Mars

Scientists Discover Potential Source of Methane on Mars

To find the likely source of the methane, scientists used computer models to closely analyze the surface structures found in Gale Crater, as well as the surrounding region.

On 16 June 2013, instruments on Curiosity recorded a spike in methane in the Gale crater, a 96-mile-wide bowl where the rover landed in August 2012.

The most likely outcome, according to the team, is that 39-54 tonnes of methane were released into the Martian atmosphere from a subterranean source.

Writing in the journal Nature Geoscientist, Mars Express researchers do not address the thorny question of what produced the methane "spike".

On Earth, methanogenic microbes produce methane. Because it can be destroyed quickly by atmospheric processes, any detection of the molecule in the Martian atmosphere means it must have been released relatively recently - even if the methane itself was produced millions or billions of years ago and lay trapped in underground reservoirs until now. Nasa experts feel that the Gale crater could have been a very ancient lake once upon a time.

Giuranna and his colleagues confirmed the Curiosity observation by looking at 20 months of data collected by Mars Express, and also by developing a new technique that allowed the researchers to scour through hundreds of measurements made over a single area.

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Scientists expect to gain new insights into the nature of Mars' methane and other trace gases from data collected by ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a probe with an instrument suite created to survey Mars' atmospheric makeup. The presence of methane in the vicinity was confirmed by readings taken 24 hours earlier by NASA's Curiosity rover.

"Our finding constitutes the first independent confirmation of a methane detection", Giuranna said. "Based on geological evidence and the amount of methane that we measured, we think that the source is unlikely to be located within the crater".

The near-invisible Martian atmosphere. By cross-referencing readings from Mars Express and Curiosity, they determined that the methane originated about 300 miles east of the Gale Crater, in a region known as Aeolis Mensae. For example, on Earth, gas emission from active mud volcanoes is typically continuous with background variations, but also with sudden strong bursts, while other seeps might release gas intermittently.

"Since permafrost is one of the best seals for methane, it is possible that bulk ice in the MFF may trap and seal subsurface methane".

"We identified tectonic faults that might extend below a region proposed to contain shallow ice", study co-author Giuseppe Etiope from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology said in the ESA statement. This was a significant finding - methane has been periodically detected on Mars at various points, but the gas has always vanished thereafter.


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