Tomorrow is Here

Methane Gas in the Martian Atmosphere

by on Jan.20, 2009, under Around the Solar System

Methane on Mars

Methane on Mars

In a paper published in Science last week, a team led by Michael J. Mumma of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, confirmed the presence of methane gas in the Martian atmosphere.

The gas was first detected using Earth based telescopes in 2003. However, spacecraft based instruments did not completely support these observations. It has taken several years of careful observation to confirm the results.

Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon. It has four hydrogen atoms attached to a single carbon. Sunlight breaks methane down, so its presence in the Martian atmosphere points to it being actively replenished. The gas could be the product of life, or of geochemistry. There is not enough data to decide which.

“We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane,” co-author Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America told a Washington press conference. “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.”

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, due for launch in 2011, will have the ability to measure the isotopic composition of the gas. The may shed further light on the origins of the methane on Mars.


Picture Credit: NASA

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