Probe confirms methane in the Martian atmosphere
EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY NEWS RELEASE
Posted: March 30, 2004

During recent observations from the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft in orbit around Mars, methane was detected in its atmosphere.

Whilst it is too early to draw any conclusions on its origin, exciting as they may be, scientists are thinking about the next steps to take in order to understand more.


This colour image of the Hecates Tholus volcano was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express in orbit 32 on from an altitude of 275 km. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
 
From the time of its arrival at Mars, the Mars Express spacecraft started producing stunning results. One of the aims of the mission is analysing in detail the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere, known to consist of 95% percent carbon dioxide plus 5% of minor constituents. It is also from these minor constituents, which scientists expect to be oxygen, water, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and methane, that we may get important information on the evolution of the planet and possible implications for the presence of past or present life.

The presence of methane has been confirmed thanks to the observations of the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) on board Mars Express during the past few weeks. This instrument is able to detect the presence of particular molecules by analysing their "spectral fingerprints" - the specific way each molecule absorbs the sunlight it receives.

The measurements confirm so far that the amount of methane is very small - about 10 parts in a thousand million, so its production process is probably small. However, the exciting question "where does this methane come from?" remains.

Methane, unless it is continuously produced by a source, only survives in the Martian atmosphere for a few hundreds of years because it quickly oxidises to form water and carbon dioxide, both present in the Martian atmosphere. So, there must be a mechanism that refills the atmosphere with methane.

"The first thing to understand is how exactly the methane is distributed in the Martian atmosphere," says Vittorio Formisano, Principal Investigator for the PFS instrument. "Since the methane presence is so small, we need to take more measurements. Only then we will have enough data to make a statistical analysis and understand whether there are regions of the atmosphere where methane is more concentrated."

Once this is done, scientists will try to establish a link between the planet-wide distribution of methane and possible atmospheric or surface processes that may produce it. "Based on our experience on Earth, the methane production could be linked to volcanic or hydro-thermal activity on Mars. The High Resolution Stereo camera (HRSC) on Mars Express could help us identify visible activity, if it exists, on the surface of the planet", continues Formisano. Clearly, if it was the case, this would imply a very important consequence, as present volcanic activity had never been detected so far on Mars.

Other hypotheses could also be considered. On Earth, methane is a by-product of biological activity, such as fermentation. "If we have to exclude the volcanic hypothesis, we could still consider the possibility of life," concludes Formisano.

"In the next few weeks, the PFS and other instruments on-board Mars Express will continue gathering data on the Martian atmosphere, and by then we will be able to draw a more precise picture," says Agustin Chicarro, ESA Mars Express Project Scientist.

Thanks to the PFS instrument, scientists are also gathering precious data about isotopes in atmospheric molecules such as water and carbon dioxide - very important to understand how the planet was formed and to add clues on the atmospheric escape. The PFS also gives important hints about water-cloud formation on the top of volcanoes, and shows the presence of active photochemical processes in the atmosphere.    

Final Shuttle Mission Patch

Free shipping to U.S. addresses!

The crew emblem for the final space shuttle mission is now available in our store. Get this piece of history!
 U.S. STORE
 WORLDWIDE STORE

STS-134 Patch

Free shipping to U.S. addresses!

The final planned flight of space shuttle Endeavour is symbolized in the official embroidered crew patch for STS-134. Available in our store!
 U.S. STORE
 WORLDWIDE STORE

Ares 1-X Patch
The official embroidered patch for the Ares 1-X rocket test flight, is available for purchase.
 U.S. STORE
 WORLDWIDE STORE

Apollo Collage
This beautiful one piece set features the Apollo program emblem surrounded by the individual mission logos.
 U.S. STORE
 WORLDWIDE STORE

Project Orion
The Orion crew exploration vehicle is NASA's first new human spacecraft developed since the space shuttle a quarter-century earlier. The capsule is one of the key elements of returning astronauts to the Moon.
 U.S. STORE


Fallen Heroes Patch Collection
The official patches from Apollo 1, the shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews are available in the store.
 U.S. STORE
 WORLDWIDE STORE

Columbia Report
A reproduction of the official accident investigation report into the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven.
 Choose your store:
U.S. - U.K. - E.U. - Worldwide

Mars Panorama

DISCOUNTED! This 360 degree image was taken by the Mars Pathfinder, which landed on the Red Planet in July 1997. The Sojourner Rover is visible in the image.
 Choose your store:
U.S.

Apollo 11 Mission Report
Apollo 11 - The NASA Mission Reports Vol. 3 is the first comprehensive study of man's first mission to another world is revealed in all of its startling complexity. Includes DVD!
 Choose your store:
U.S. - U.K. - E.U. - Worldwide

Rocket DVD
If you've ever watched a launch from Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg Air Force Base or even Kodiak Island Alaska, there's no better way to describe what you witnessed than with this DVD.
 Choose your store:
U.S. - U.K. - E.U. - Worldwide

Apollo Collage
This beautiful one piece set features the Apollo program emblem surrounded by the individual mission logos.
 U.S. STORE
 WORLDWIDE STORE


An insider's view of how Apollo flight controllers operated and just what they faced when events were crucial.
 Choose your store:
U.S.

Get e-mail updates
Sign up for our NewsAlert service and have the latest news in astronomy and space e-mailed direct to your desktop (privacy note: your e-mail address will not be used for any other purpose).
Enter your e-mail address:
MISSION STATUS CENTER

INDEX | PLUS | NEWS ARCHIVE | LAUNCH SCHEDULE
ASTRONOMY NOW | STORE

ADVERTISE

© 2014 Spaceflight Now Inc.