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Large Quantities of Methane Being Replenished on Mars

This image shows concentrations of Methane discovered on Mars. Credit: NASA

This image shows concentrations of Methane discovered on Mars. Credit: NASA

Methane has been measured in large quantities in Mars atmosphere over several seasons, meaning Mars is active, either geologically or biologically. “We found methane,” said Dr. Geronimo Villanueva from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, one member of a team of scientists reporting on their research at a press conference today at NASA Headquarters. “We can measure not only the methane, but where it is coming from and when it is being released.” This is the first definitive detection of methane on Mars that includes maps identifying areas of active release. “Mars is active,” said Michael Meyers, lead NASA scientist for the Mars Program, “but we don’t know if it’s because of biology or geology or both.”

The methane on Mars was first detected in 1999, again in 2001 and 2003, which was widely reported, but not much was known about the origin or amount of the gas on Mars.

The research team found methane in the atmosphere of Mars by carefully observing the planet over several Mars years, and during all the Martian seasons with NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, run by the University of Hawaii, and the W. M. Keck telescope, both at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Measurements were made using spectroscopy by which light is split into its individual wavelengths, and then the “fingerprint” of individual molecules can be identified.

From Earth the aperture of the spectrometer is placed along the north-south direction of the planet, and during observations, the instrument can acquire between 30 and 50 individual spectra of Mars for every sixty seconds. Doing this they can build a map of the planet, as the planet rotates under the “slit” or aperture of the spectrometer.
In this illustration, subsurface water, carbon dioxide and the planet's internal heat combine to release methane. Although we don’t have evidence on Mars of active volcanoes today, ancient methane trapped in ice "cages" might now be released. Credit: NASA/Susan Twardy
The origin of methane could either be geologic where water reacts with hot rock and produces methane gas which escapes through pores in the planet’s surface in a process called serpentinization. Or it could be evidence of biology under the surface, where the methane generated by microbes could accumulate and then escape through the rocks.

Three regions of active release of methane were found and were seen over areas that show evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water. The plumes of methane appeared over northern hemisphere regions such as east of Arabia Terra, the Nili Fossae region, and the south-east quadrant of Syrtis Major, an ancient volcano 1,200 kilometers (about 745 miles) across.

“We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane,” said Villanueva. “The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons — spring and summer — perhaps because the permafrost blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air. Curiously, some plumes had water vapor while others did not,” said Villanueva. The rate of release is about 1 pound per second or .6 kg per second.

“Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas,” said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif.”

Another team member, Lisa Pratt, professor of geological sciences, Indiana University in
Bloomington, elaborated on whether the process creating the methane could be geological or biological. “If there is an “A” line of evidence that makes me think we need to seriously consider biology, it’s the processes in the subsurface that would allow for methane generation that seems slightly more plausible for biology than geochemistry,” she said. “Serpentinization is a simple water/rock reaction and is a process we see only in a few special places on Earth, usually associated with major fracturing and faulting that allows mantle like materials to be exposed to sea water and groundwater. That’s a process that ‘plugs up the plumbing’ and isolates the reactive site, and we don’t see a lot of evidence for major active, deep faulting and uplift that would bring these reactive materials into contact with water.”

While the team reported on results from observations in 2003 and 2006, they said they were not at liberty to discuss findings from subsequent observations, as the work to decipher the findings is still being done. But they hinted that relatively soon, more information would be available. They are also developing a strategy for further studies with ground-based telescopes, current spacecraft orbiting Mars, and future spacecraft such as the Mar Science Laboratory, as well as re-looking at data already obtained to see if more clues can be found as to the origin of the methane on Mars.

Sources: NASA press conference, NASA


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • brent January 15, 2009, 2:51 PM

    Are the methane release areas places where we’ve landed probes I wonder? Maybe hitch along microbes?

  • Emission Nebula January 15, 2009, 2:53 PM

    Very unlikely to be biological (at least in my opinion).

    But is it possible that this could be from Mars` crust starting to shift?

    Not being a geologist, I wouldnt really know. But from what I read it sounds as though this may be a possibility.

  • Emission Nebula January 15, 2009, 2:54 PM

    Any tremors in recent times?

  • Conic January 15, 2009, 3:01 PM

    Boy if only there were some way to send people into space, “astromen” they might be called, and actually have them land on Mars to investigate it. Somehow that would be exactly what we need. The challenges, the thousands of high quality jobs it would create, the adventure, and the science we could do there on mars. A good paleontologist could survey a KM long transect in the time it takes a rover to open its solar panels.

  • Frank Glover January 15, 2009, 3:16 PM

    “Are the methane release areas places where we’ve landed probes I wonder? Maybe hitch along microbes?”

    If it’s biological, I doubt it’s anything we might’ve carried there. Not all Earth life produces methane as a by-product, and it would have to also be able to survive and reproduce massively, on the Martian surface, to make a ‘signature’ detectable from Earth.

    Again, if it;’s from something living, I suspect it’s something native, established for millions (if not billions) of years at some signifigant underground depths where maybe the temprature, and definitely the pressure are enough for liquid water to exist. Much as has been found in even the deepest mines on Earth…

  • Astrofiend January 15, 2009, 3:52 PM

    I’d be leaning heavily toward a geochemical origin…

    Conic Says:
    January 15th, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    All in good time…

  • Jon January 15, 2009, 3:55 PM

    Ditto on Frank Glover’s comment. The ultraviolet environment on Mars is severe. Something biological there probably evolved to handle it there.

  • Olaf January 15, 2009, 4:04 PM

    Unless it is life underground

  • kent lee January 15, 2009, 6:08 PM

    A bunch of Martian bovine life forms, perhaps some sort of subterranean bovine form, actively producing lots of gasses. Or Martians after eating too much chili.

  • Invader Xan January 16, 2009, 3:06 AM


    Frankly, a bioloigcal explanation is starting to look like a very plausible explanation… Although that isn’t to say it’s the only plausible explanation.

    One of the most likely geochemical explanations though, would probably be serpentinisation, requiring liquid water and tectonic activity. Given Mars’s current state, that doesn’t seem significantly more likely…

  • alan January 16, 2009, 12:34 AM

    Well I suppose it could come from both sources. The seasonal thing is interesting. I would tend to think if it was biological we would see some kind of even pattern of distribution. Maybe a band around the equator or something similar. Ancient floods should have spread bacteria all over then later settled into certain areas. But I’m no expert, or even closet astronaut.

  • Michael Murray January 16, 2009, 4:36 AM

    As tempting as it is too imagine vast numbers of underground cows farting, it seems a safer bet to assume from the geography that ancient water bodies (and likely biological activity) deposited layers of carbon based materials (lignite, coal, oil) which are releasing Methane into the sub surface where it is being trapped in a ‘soil’ layer by frozen water molecules. When it is warm enough for the water to melt, the methane gets the opportunity to escape into the atmosphere. When it is warm enough for the water to vaporize, we get the plumes with water vapor. Though I think the article does kind of imply this possibility. As for further research, surely massive deposits of oil on Mars warrants some kind of invasion :P – so funding shouldn’t be a problem…

  • RetardedFishFrog January 16, 2009, 4:36 AM

    I like the timing of the statement – right before Obama’s inauguration. We have a very credible possibility for microbial life on Mars. Will Obama be the one to cut back Mars exploration? He wants to implement change, but will it be for the better or for the worse?

  • LLDIAZ January 16, 2009, 11:48 AM

    with the avalanche at the pole I would lean more towards geology and if thats so could it be the plate tech is on the move again

  • Ben Dover January 16, 2009, 1:01 PM

    Not to be left behind, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reed have reserved 50 billion dollars to stop global warming on Mars.

  • cowfarts January 16, 2009, 6:18 AM

    Came here to UT to get this story, heard something on BBC about life on mars. People will use anything to prove signs of life or GOD. Same out flow from one coal pit. Now I going to read the how massive stars form. Thanks UT.

  • Fenring January 16, 2009, 6:39 AM

    The methane that livestock releases is largely due to friendly microbes living in their stomachs anyway, rather then being a byproduct of their digestion:

    “Sheep and cattle have a pregastric stomach, or rumen, where microbes digest plant matter and produce hydrogen, carbon dioxide and fatty acids. The fatty acids are a useful source of energy to aid animal growth, but the hydrogen and carbon dioxide are not. This is where microorganisms called methanogens come in: they have co-evolved with the animal to consume the carbon dioxide and hydrogen, producing methane. In return, the methanogens gain a home and a food source.”


  • Joe January 16, 2009, 8:26 AM

    At least it gives us an idea where to land our next spacecraft and a reason to get a decent budget for it.


  • ScepticTim January 16, 2009, 11:13 AM

    “The rate of release is about 1 pound per second or .6 kg per second.”
    This is incorrect. 1 pound = 454 grams so the above should read “… 1 pound per second or about .46 kilograms per second.

  • ScepticTim January 16, 2009, 11:26 AM

    sorry, that should read “… about .45 kilograms per second.”