Methane on Mars – Biology? Volcanic?

Methane (CH4) is a colorless, odorless gas that is the main ingredient of natural gas used for fuel. Methane on Earth is produced by animals, bacteria and decaying organic matter which give off so much that methane is the primary greenhouse gas in our planet's atmosphere.

Methane detected by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) on the Mars Express spacecraft in orbit around Mars. ESA 2001 Illustration by Medialab.
Methane detected by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) on the Mars Express spacecraft in orbit around Mars. ESA 2001 Illustration by Medialab.

March 31, 2004  Darmstadt, Germany - The amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere is estimated to be 10.5 parts per billion, which amounts to 33,000 tons of methane. Methane would be expected to survive as a gas in the Martian atmosphere for about 300 to 350 years before broken down into water and carbon dioxide by the UV radiation from the sun. On Earth, methane is a by-product of biological activity and so this discovery implies the methane source might also be biological on Mars. If there is currently 33,000 tons of methane in the Martian atmosphere, that means 100 tons per year were produced over the 300 to 350 years. That is 300 kilograms per day and implies there is one or more sources able to produce these amounts of methane for a long period of time.The methane data is being analyzed by Physicist Vittorio Formisano, Ph.D., Principal Investigator of the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) which is mounted on ESA's Mars Express Orbiter to detect methane. Dr. Formisano is based at the Institute of Physics and Interplanetary Science in Rome, Italy. But given the exciting discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere, Dr. Formisano is now in Darmstadt, Germany, gathering more data from the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer in hopes that he will be able to find one or more sources of the methane by the end of April. I talked with him today in Darmstadt about possible methane sources, including biological life and volcanoes.

 

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