Mars Exciting Methane Mystery Might Be Starting To Clear Up

Mars Exciting Methane Mystery Might Be Starting To Clear Up

The discovery of methane on Mars has piqued the interest of scientists because microbes on Earth frequently produce the gas; its presence on Mars could indicate that similar life existed or exists on the red planet.

There are potential geological processes that could produce methane as well. Methane is naturally produced on Earth either through biological processes - indicating life - or through geological processes - occurring in the mantle and rising to the surface with a volcanic eruption, but scientists have been attempting to solve another mystery before determining the source of methane gas on Mars.

Methane detections are inconsistent. NASA scientists discovered traces of methane gas in Mars' atmosphere in 2003. The European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Orbiter Rover confirmed the findings a year later. NASA's Curiosity Rover has detected gas above the Gale Crater's surface on multiple occasions. 

But when the European Space Agency (ESA) launched its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016 for precisely this purpose. Surprisingly, TGO found no traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere. This created a mystery surrounding a gas that could be a sign of life on Mars.

"When the Trace Gas Orbiter came on board in 2016, I was fully expecting the orbiter team to report that there’s a small amount of methane everywhere on Mars," said Chris Webster, a senior research scientist at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and also leads the TLS instrument for NASA. "But when the European team announced that it saw no methane, I was definitely shocked."

The Curiosity rover's Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) continued to detect methane near the surface. The most surprising thing was that if methane was seeping from the ground, it had to dissolve in the atmosphere, and assuming methane was seeping for a long time, the concentrations should have been high enough to be detected by TGO.

NASA explained that ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was "designed to be the gold standard for measuring methane and other gases over the whole planet," but it found no methane at all, contrary to all expectations.

Some scientists even speculated that the Rover itself was releasing the gas as it moved forward, crushing rocks and deteriorating its wheels. However, a thorough examination of the machine revealed no such chemical reaction was taking place on Curiosity Rover.

Then, one of the Curiosity team's scientists, John E. Moores, realized that because Curiosity's TLS operates at night and ExoMars TGO operates during the day, the cause of the inconsistency could be methane disappearing quickly as the sun rises.

Experiments quickly confirmed that methane concentrations rise and fall throughout the day, but scientists have yet to solve another mystery that remained beyond the methane's origin: why was it disappearing?

Methane is a chemically stable molecule. Even without a protective atmosphere, it is expected to last for 300 years on Mars before being destroyed by solar radiation.

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