Scientists May Have Pinpointed the Source of Mars’ Methane

Scientists May Have Pinpointed the Source of Mars’ Methane

Back in 2013, NASA’s Mars probe Curiosity reported detecting methane on Mars. This was a significant finding — methane has been periodically detected on Mars at various points, but the gas has always vanished thereafter. Long periods of time have passed without any methane being detected in the atmosphere at all.

In a new report, researchers claim to have found data substantiating Curiosity’s initial methane detection. By scouring records from the ESO’s Mars Express satellite, the team found evidence that its probe had picked up the methane burst as well, confirming that Curiosity detected what we thought it had. More interestingly, we may also have found the source.

Spoiler: It probably isn’t organically produced. Despite the fact that much of Earth’s methane is produced biologically, biological sources for Mars’ methane were always unlikely. If these findings are accurate, we can lay that idea to rest. Comparing the data from Curiosity with the data from Mars Express, the team was able to determine that the methane in question probably came from a ground release some distance from Curiosity’s location at Gale Crater.

The most likely outcome, according to the team, is that 39-54 tonnes of methane were released into the Martian atmosphere from a subterranean source. After considering when the release began and the likely size, the scientists were able to create a likely grid for the emissions.

The most likely sources for Curiosity’s methane leak.
The most likely sources for Curiosity’s methane leak.

Their model suggests the release may have come from Aeolis Mensae, a geological feature some 300 miles east of Gale Crater. Current thinking is that a break in the Martian permafrost allowed for a significant release of methane gas. The features at Aeolis Mensae are thought to be favorable for this kind of permafrost formation, increasing the chance that periodic breaks or fault lines could allow for a release. Gas accumulation could have caused a breach, or the permafrost might have been broken by a meteorite impact. The most likely origin block we’ve identified on the surface contains numerous geological faults that could account for the release.

This investigation highlights one of the gaps in our knowledge of Mars. While we’re familiar with the planet’s surface at this point, knowledge of its interior is lacking. Missions like InSight are intended to increase our knowledge of Mars’ subsurface geology for precisely this reason.

These permafrost breakages aren’t as exciting as it would be to find actual, methane-releasing life. Few things would be. But locating a plausible intermittent source for Mars’ methane release allows scientists to better categorize that data point as they plan missions and look for the best locations to explore the deep history of the planet.

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