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Monday, August 10, 2009

Methane Indicates Something Passing Gas: What's Happening on Mars?

Mars, methane and mysteries
Mars may not be as dormant as scientists once thought. The 2004 discovery of methane means that either there is life on Mars, or that volcanic activity continues to generate heat below the martian surface. ESA plans to find out which it is. Either outcome is big news for a planet once thought to be biologically and geologically inactive.

The methane mystery started soon after December 2003, when ESA's Mars Express arrived in orbit around the red planet. As the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) began taking data, Vittorio Formisano, Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario CNR, Rome, and the rest of the instrument team saw a puzzling signal. As well as the atmospheric gases they were anticipating, such as carbon monoxide and water vapour, they also saw methane.

"Methane was a surprise, we were not expecting that," says Agustin Chicarro, ESA Mars Lead Scientist. The reason is that on Earth much of the methane in our atmosphere is released by evolved life forms, such as cattle digesting food. While there are ways to produce methane without life, such as by volcanic activity, it is the possible biological route that has focused attention on the discovery.

The Mars Express detection of methane is not an isolated case. While the spacecraft was en route, two independent teams of astronomers using ground-based telescopes started to see traces of methane. After five years of intensive study, the suite of observations all confirmed the discovery and presented planetary scientists with a big puzzle.

Methane is thought to be stable in the martian atmosphere for around 300 years. So, whatever is generating the methane up there, it is a recent occurrence. In January 2009, a team led by Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center published results that the methane they saw in 2003 was concentrated in three regions of the planet. This showed that the methane was being released at the present time and was being observed before it had time to distribute itself around the planet.

Things then took a strange turn. Instead of taking 300 years to disappear, the methane had almost entirely vanished by early 2006. Clearly something unusual is going on at Mars. "We thought we understood how methane behaved on Mars but if the measurements are correct then we must be missing something big," says Franck Lefèvre, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, CNRS, Paris and a member of Mars Express's SPICAM instrument team.

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