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Martian Methane

Visualization of a methane plume found in Mars’ atmosphere during the northern summer season. Credit: Trent Schindler/NASA

Visualization of a methane plume found in Mars’ atmosphere during the northern summer season. Credit: Trent Schindler/NASA

By Andrew Cooper/Special to Hawaii247.com

Using both the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and the W.M. Keck Telescopes atop Mauna Kea, a team of NASA and university astronomers have definitively shown that a large amount of Methane is being released into the Martian atmosphere. This is one of the most tantalizing clues to date that life exists on Mars or at least has existed in the past.

“We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane,” said co-author Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America in Washington. “The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons, spring and summer, perhaps because ice blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air.”

Conceptual animation depicting how geochemical processes during the course of Mars’ history may have produced the methane plumes now seen in Mars’ atmosphere. Credit: Susan Twardy/NASA

Conceptual animation depicting how geochemical processes during the course of Mars’ history may have produced the methane plumes now seen in Mars’ atmosphere. Credit: Susan Twardy/NASA

It is possible that the methane is seeping from a large underground source. Something similar to gas deposits or coal beds found on Earth. The question is whether geochemical or biologic processes produced the gas. There are non-biological processes that could produce methane on Mars, oxidation of iron into serpentine group minerals is one example. Methane is also a common byproduct of biological processes. It is possible that bacteria living deep in the crust of the planet produce Methane that is periodically released.

“Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas,” said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif.”

It is not possible to determine from these measurements if the methane is produced through geochemical or biological processes. Making that determination would require direct sampling and analysis of the methane gas with an instrument carried by a lander or rover on a future Mars mission.

Andrew Cooper is an engineer, an amateur astronomer, a telescope maker and more. You can find his website at www.darkerview.com

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