Scientists have set their minds on solving one of astronomy's most intriguing puzzles, the great Martian methane mystery. The next few months could reveal whether sparse bursts of the gas that have been detected on Mars are geological in origin or are produced by living organisms. Methane on Earth is produced mostly by microbes although it can be generated by relatively simple geological processes underground.
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That is the question scientists hope to answer with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter which has been manuring above Mars for over a year. This probe is designed to help to determine which of these sources is responsible for the methane detected on the planet. The craft deployed special sensors last week and began taking its first measurements of the planet's atmosphere.
<img src="https://media.8ch.net/file_store/5c3a2fdbbeb85904500f71f24da46fbaa691d929587580de79ffc795e35d84a4.jpg" style="max-height:640px;max-width:360px;">
<span style="margin-top:15px;rgba(42,51,6,0.7);font-size:12px;">Image from ExoMars Orbiter | NASA</span>
Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency said, "If we find traces of methane that are mixed with more complex organic molecules, it will be a strong sign that methane on Mars has a biological source and that it is being produced – or was once produced – by living organisms. However, if we find it is mixed with gases such as sulfur dioxide, that will suggest its source is geological, not biological. In addition, methane made biologically tends to contain lighter isotopes of the element carbon than methane that is made geologically."
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The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was launched toward Mars on a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in March 2016. The robot spacecraft is a joint European-Russian mission and upon arriving at Mars seven months after its launch, it deployed a small lander called Schiaparelli. This lander is designed to test heat shields and parachutes that could make future landings easier. A miscalculation in the retro-thruster rockets ended up destroying the craft when they shut off too early.
Hakan Svedhem is an orbiter project scientist and he said, "We will look at sunlight as it passes through the Martian atmosphere and study how it is absorbed by methane molecules there. We should be able to detect the presence of the gas to an accuracy of one molecule in every 10 billion molecules." If the methane is found to be biological in origin, two scenarios could be the cause. Either long extinct microbes, which have been gone for millions of years left methane that is slowly seeping to the surface, or some very resistant methane-producing organisms are surviving underground.
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