Published: Wed, April 03, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Ice sheet likely source of methane on Mars, scientists find

Ice sheet likely source of methane on Mars, scientists find

New research published yesterday in Nature Geoscience confirms that NASA's Curiosity rover detected a methane spike on 15 June 2013, while exploring Gale Crater on Mars.

Two independent analyses were used to reach this conclusion, including computer simulations that assessed the probability of methane emissions from the Martian surface, and the identification of geological features within Gale Crater consistent with the associated methane spike. Some says the methane detections on Mars are spurious or have come from other sources such as the rover itself. Marco Giuranna from the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome, Italy, and colleagues looked at data gathered by the planetary fourier spectrometer (PFS) on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.

In the meantime, the worldwide team led by Italian researcher Marco Giuranna had succeeded in improving the quality of the data collected by the Mars Express infrared spectrometer, a mission of the European Space Agency (ESA). Here on Earth, the methane is produced by methanogenic microbes.

NASA's spacecraft have taken pictures of tens of thousands of those lakes out of orbit, and once rover Curiosity landed in 2012, it was sent back pictures of pebbles which were curved, campaigning for a quite long time in the bottom of a river. This allowed them to collect several hundred measurements over a short period of time.

There are a variety of ways methane might be produced on Mars.

Marco Giuranna suspects the plume didn't originate from Gale Crater.

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A strong signal of methane was measured by the Curiosity rover on 15 June 2013. The area was split into grid squares to assess the likelihood of methane sources. The new interpretation presented in the new study offers a different scenario.

"However, the first step to understanding the origin of any Martian methane is to determine its release location".

When Curiosity detected methane nearly six years ago, it was speculated that the gas originated north of the rover because the prevailing winds were southward, and that the release likely occurred inside the crater. Both processes release the gas on Earth. For Mars, this means the gas is likely venting up from beneath the surface.

"We identified tectonic faults that might extend below a region proposed to contain shallow ice", study co-author Giuseppe Etiope from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology said in the ESA statement. Since permafrost is an excellent seal for methane, it is possible that the ice here could trap subsurface methane and release it episodically along the faults that break through this ice.

There are geological processes that can generate methane abiotically. Meanwhile, geologists in the USA and Italy scrutinised the region around the crater for features that might release methane. More interestingly, we may also have found the source.

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