Mars has no methane, but lots of water

Mars shows no signs of methane, but plenty of water, according to the latest data from the European Space Agency's orbiting spacecraft.

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There’s no methane on Mars, but there does seem to be quite a lot of water (at least by Martian standards) according to the first results from ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which were announced on 11 April at the European Geoscience Union’s General Assembly.

The findings could have serious connotations in the search for life on Mars.

“We are delighted with the first results from the Trace Gas Orbiter,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s TGO project scientist.

“Our instruments are performing extremely well and even within the first few months of observation were already providing exquisite data to a much higher level than previously achieved.”

Methane was first detected in the Gale Crater by the Curiosity rover in 2013, a finding that was reaffirmed by the Mars Express orbiter.

This detection was a temporary spike, leading people to believe the release of the gas was a seasonal effect – such as the gas being released from thawing permafrost, or perhaps even a summer bloom of Martian bacteria.

However: “During our period of observation in 2018 we did not see any methane down to low levels [12 parts per trillion],” says Oleg Korablev from the Russian Academy of Space Sciences and principal investigator of the spectrometer which made the measurement.

This does not necessarily mean Curiosity’s findings were wrong, as a single spike would be undetectable by the TGO unless it was looking directly at it as it happened.

However, it does suggest that such outbursts are rarer than had been hoped.

Despite this blow in the hunt for Martian life, there came another boon in the form of the best map yet of the water frozen into the top metre of Martian soil.

 


A map of subsurface water on Mars. The darker blue the region, the more water there is. The map will increase in resolution as more data is take by the Trace Gas Orbiter
Credit: ESA/Roscosmos

 

“[There] is for sure, a lot of water in the subsurface of Mars. Mars is rich in water,” says Igor Mitrofanov, from the Russian Academy of Space Sciences.

The map is still in its early stages, but it showed that while the equatorial regions were very dry, the subsurface regions at the poles contained up to 30 per cent water.

However, the map did show oases of water in several equatorial regions, such as Valles Mareineris – a valley which is believed to have been shaped at least in part by a long-since dried up river.

Such oases could be potential sites for future searches for past, or even extant, life on Mars


 

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