Report

Mars methane detection and variability at Gale crater

Science  23 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6220, pp. 415-417
DOI: 10.1126/science.1261713

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Of water and methane on Mars

The Curiosity rover has been collecting data for the past 2 years, since its delivery to Mars (see the Perspective by Zahnle). Many studies now suggest that many millions of years ago, Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today. But those conditions required an atmosphere that seems to have vanished. Using the Curiosity rover, Mahaffy et al. measured the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in clays that were formed 3.0 to 3.7 billion years ago. Hydrogen escapes more readily than deuterium, so this ratio offers a snapshot measure of the ancient atmosphere that can help constrain when and how it disappeared. Most methane on Earth has a biological origin, so planetary scientists have keenly pursued its detection in the martian atmosphere as well. Now, Webster et al. have precisely confirmed the presence of methane in the martian atmosphere with the instruments aboard the Curiosity rover at Gale crater.

Science, this issue p. 412, p. 415; see also p. 370

Abstract

Reports of plumes or patches of methane in the martian atmosphere that vary over monthly time scales have defied explanation to date. From in situ measurements made over a 20-month period by the tunable laser spectrometer of the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite on Curiosity at Gale crater, we report detection of background levels of atmospheric methane of mean value 0.69 ± 0.25 parts per billion by volume (ppbv) at the 95% confidence interval (CI). This abundance is lower than model estimates of ultraviolet degradation of accreted interplanetary dust particles or carbonaceous chondrite material. Additionally, in four sequential measurements spanning a 60-sol period (where 1 sol is a martian day), we observed elevated levels of methane of 7.2 ± 2.1 ppbv (95% CI), implying that Mars is episodically producing methane from an additional unknown source.

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