For centuries, scientists have speculated about the existence of life on Mars. But it was only within the past 15 years that the search for life (past and present) really began to heat up. It was at this time that methane, an organic molecule that is associated with many forms of life here on Earth (i.e. a “biosignature”) was detected in Mars’ atmosphere.
Since that time, attempts to study Mars’ atmospheric methane have produced varying results. In some cases, methane has been found that was several times its normal concentrations; in others, it was absent. Seeking to answer this mystery, an interdisciplinary team from Aarhus Universityrecently conducted a study where they investigated a possible mechanism for the removal of methane from Mars’ atmosphere.
Since it landed on Mars in 2012, one of the main scientific objectives of the Curiosity rover has been finding evidence of past (or even present) life on the Red Planet. In 2014, the rover may have accomplished this very thing when it detected a tenfold increase in atmospheric methane in its vicinity and found traces of complex organic molecules in drill samples while poking around in the Gale Crater.
About a year ago, Curiosity struck pay dirt again when it found organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks located near the surface of lower Mount Sharp. But last week, the Curiosity rover made an even more profound discovery when it detected the largest amount of methane ever measured on the surface of Mars – about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv).
If you’re not a chemist, an astrobiologist, or a scientist of any sort, and that includes most of us, then a tiny, almost imperceptible whiff of methane in the Martian atmosphere might seem like no big deal. But it is, gentle humans. It is.
Because it could be a signal that some living process is at work. And even we non-scientists have wondered at some point if the only life in the Solar System, or maybe in the entire Universe, is confined here on Earth.
Now less than 25 days from her history making rendezvous with the Red Planet and the critical Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI) engine firing, India’s MOM is in good health!
The Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, counts as India’s first interplanetary voyager and the nation’s first manmade object to orbit the 4th rock from our Sun on September 24, 2014 – if all goes well.
MOM was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
“MOM and its payloads are in good health,” reports ISRO in a new update.
As of today, Aug. 31, MOM has traveled a total distance of over 622 million km in its heliocentric arc towards Mars, says ISRO. It is currently 199 million km away from Earth.
Altogether the probe has completed over 90% of the journey to Mars.
In the past week alone it has traveled over 20 million km and is over 10 million km further from Earth. It is now less than 9 million kilometers away from Mars
Round trip radio signals communicating with MOM now take some 21 minutes.
The 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) probe has been streaking through space for nearly ten months.
To remain healthy and accomplish her science mission ahead, the spacecraft must fire the 440 Newton liquid fueled main engine to brake into orbit around the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 – where she will study the atmosphere and sniff for signals of methane.
The do or die MOI burn on September 24, 2014 places MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit around Mars.
MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.
MOM is streaking to Mars along with NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which arrives a few days earlier on September 21, 2014.
Although MOM’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities, she will also study the planet’s atmosphere and surface.
The probe is equipped with five indigenous instruments to conduct meaningful science – including a tri color imager (MCC) and a methane gas sniffer (MSM) to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MOM, MAVEN, Rosetta, Opportunity, Curiosity, Mars rover and more Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
India’s maiden foray to Mars is now just one month out from the Red Planet and closing in fast on the final stages of the history making rendezvous culminating on September 24, 2014.
As of Aug. 22, 2014, the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, was just 9 million kilometers away from Mars and the crucial Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI) engine firing that places India’s first interplanetary voyager into orbit around the 4th planet from the Sun.
MOM was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) at a cost of $69 Million and marks India’s maiden foray into interplanetary flight.
So far it has traveled a total distance of 602 million km in its heliocentric arc towards Mars, says ISRO. It is currently 189 million km away from Earth. Round trip radio signals communicating with MOM take 20 minutes and 47 seconds.
After streaking through space for some ten and a half months, the 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) MOM probe will fire its 440 Newton liquid fueled main engine to brake into orbit around the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 – where she will study the atmosphere and sniff for signals of methane.
The do or die MOI burn on September 24 places MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit around Mars.
ISRO space engineers are taking care to precisely navigate MOM to keep it on course during its long heliocentric trajectory from Earth to Mars through a series of in flight Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TMSs).
The last TCM was successfully performed on June 11 by firing the spacecraft’s 22 Newton thrusters for a duration of 16 seconds. TCM-1 was conducted on December 11, 2013 by firing the 22 Newton Thrusters for 40.5 seconds.
Engineers determined that a TCM planned for August was not needed.
The final TCM firing is planned in September 2014.
Engineers also completed the checkout of the medium gain antenna in August, “which will be used to communicate with Earth during the critical MOI” maneuver, ISRO reported.
The probe is being continuously monitored by the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) and NASA JPL’s Deep Space Network (DSN) to maintain it on course.
MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.
Six subsequent orbit raising maneuvers raised its orbit and culminated with a liquid fueled main engine firing on Dec. 1, 2013. The Trans Mars Injection(TMI) maneuver that successfully placed MOM on its heliocentric trajectory to the Red Planet.
MOM is streaking to Mars along with NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which arrives at Mars about two days earlier.
MOM and MAVEN will join Earth’s fleet of 3 current orbiters from NASA and ESA as well as NASA’s pair of sister surface rovers Curiosity and Opportunity.
If all goes well, India will join an elite club of only four who have launched probes that successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).
MOM’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities and it will also study the planet’s atmosphere and surface.
The probe is equipped with five indigenous instruments to conduct meaningful science – including a multi color imager and a methane gas sniffer to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.
ISRO is also working to determine if MOM can gather scientific measurements of
Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring during an extremely close flyby with the Red Planet on Oct. 19, 2014.
MAVEN and NASA’s other Mars probes will study the comet.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MOM, MAVEN, Opportunity, Curiosity, Mars rover and more planetary and human spaceflight news.
India is gearing up for its first ever space undertaking to the Red Planet – dubbed the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM – which is the brainchild of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO.
Among other objectives, MOM will conduct a highly valuable search for potential signatures of Martian methane – which could stem from either living or non living sources. The historic Mars bound probe also serves as a forerunner to bolder robotic exploration goals.
If all goes well India would become only the 4th nation or entity from Earth to survey Mars up close with spacecraft, following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).
The 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) orbiter, also known as ‘Mangalyaan’, is slated to blast off as early as Oct. 28 atop India’s highly reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from a seaside launch pad in Srihanikota, India.
MOM is outfitted with an array of five science instruments including a multi color imager and a methane gas sniffer to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both biological and geological sources.
ISRO officials are also paying close attention to the local weather to ascertain if remnants from Tropical Cyclone Phaillin or another developing weather system in the South Pacific could impact liftoff plans.
The launch target date will be set following a readiness review on Friday, said ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan according to Indian press reports.
‘Mangalyaan’ is undergoing final prelaunch test and integration at ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota on the east coast of Andhra Pradesh state following shipment from ISRO’s Bangalore assembly facility on Oct. 3.
ISRO has already assembled the more powerful XL extended version of the four stage PSLV launcher at Srihairkota.
MAVEN’s on time blastoff from Florida on Nov. 18, had been threatened by the chaos caused by the partial US government shutdown that finally ended this morning (Oct. 17), until the mission was granted an ‘emergency exemption’ due to the critical role it will play in relaying data from NASA’s ongoing pair of surface rovers – Curiosity and Opportunity.
NASA is providing key communications and navigation support to ISRO and MOM through the agency’s trio of huge tracking antennas in the Deep Space Network (DSN).
As India’s initial mission to Mars, ISRO says that the mission’s objectives are both technological and scientific to demonstrate the nation’s capability to design an interplanetary mission and carry out fundamental Red Planet research with a suite of indigenously built instruments.
MOM’s science complement comprises includes the tri color Mars Color Camera to image the planet and its two moon, Phobos and Diemos; the Lyman Alpha Photometer to measure the abundance of hydrogen and deuterium and understand the planets water loss process; a Thermal Imaging Spectrometer to map surface composition and mineralogy, the MENCA mass spectrometer to analyze atmospheric composition, and the Methane Sensor for Mars to measure traces of potential atmospheric methane down to the ppm level.
It will be of extremely great interest to compare any methane detection measurements from MOM to those ongoing from NASA’s Curiosity rover – which found ground level methane to be essentially nonexistent – and Europe’s planned 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.
MOM’s design builds on spacecraft heritage from India’s Chandrayaan 1 lunar mission that investigated the Moon from 2008 to 2009.
The 44 meter (144 ft) PSLV will launch MOM into an initially elliptical Earth parking orbit of 248 km x 23,000 km. A series of six orbit raising burns will eventually dispatch MOM on a trajectory to Mars by late November, assuming an Oct. 28 liftoff.
Following a 300 day interplanetary cruise phase, the do or die orbital insertion engine will fire on September 14, 2014 and place MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit.
NASA’s MAVEN is also due to arrive in Mars orbit during September 2014.
The $69 Million ‘Mangalyaan’ mission is expected to continue gathering measurements at the Red Planet for at least six months and perhaps ten months or longer.
NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover can’t find any sign of methane on the red planet, but the agency emphasized that methane would be only one indicator of possible life. There could be others.
“It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism,” stated Michael Meyer, NASA’s lead scientist for Mars exploration. “As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don’t generate methane.”
Curiosity (which can look for habitable conditions, but not life itself) sniffed the atmosphere six times for methane between October 2012 and June 2013. It didn’t see any sign of the molecule, which has been detected in other parts of Mars. The instrument being used, the tunable laser spectrometer, would be able to detect minute concentrations. Scientists today estimate methane on Mars must be 1.3 parts per billion at the most, which is only one-sixth as much as earlier estimates.
On Thursday, NASA pointed out that reports of the highest concentrations of Mars methane came from Earth-based observatories, which seems to imply that they think peering through Earth’s atmosphere may have distorted the measurements. Some Earthly measurements indicated local regions with methane as high as 45 parts per billion.
“There’s no known way for methane to disappear quickly from the atmosphere,” stated Sushil Atreya, a professor of atmospheric and space science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
“Methane is persistent. It would last for hundreds of years in the Martian atmosphere. Without a way to take it out of the atmosphere quicker, our measurements indicate there cannot be much methane being put into the atmosphere by any mechanism, whether biology, geology, or by ultraviolet degradation of organics delivered by the fall of meteorites or interplanetary dust particles.”
Where does the methane on Mars come from? That has been one of the biggest unanswered questions in planetary science since the discovery of large plumes of methane gas in the Martian atmosphere. Scientists have been trying to figure out how the planet’s environment or geology can keep replenishing this short-lived gas, and of course, in the back of everyone’s mind is whether the methane has any connection to possible life on Mars.
A new potential explanation squelches both the life and environment prospect and offers a unique answer. A group of researchers found that meteorites, which continually bombard the surface of Mars, may contain enough carbon compounds to generate methane when they are exposed to strong UV sunlight.
“Whether or not Mars is able to sustain life is not yet known, but future studies should take into account the role of sunlight and debris from meteorites in shaping the planet’s atmosphere,” said Dr. Andrew McLeod, of the University of Edinburgh, co-author of a new study published in Nature this week.
The group of European researchers looked at the famous Murchison meteorite, a carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that fell in Australia more than 40 years ago. Carbonaceous chondrites are very common meteorites, so they likely will be falling on Mars. The team exposed particles of the Murchison meteorite to levels of ultraviolet radiation equivalent to sunlight on Mars.
When the meteorite pieces were exposed to ample amounts of UV light the meteor fragments rapidly released methane. After the UV exposure was reduced, the amount of methane produced would lessen, but if there were other activities, such as heating, shaking or lowering the pressure on the meteorite, the amount of methane released would rise again.
With Mars thin atmosphere, UV light easily gets to the surface of the planet. The thin atmosphere also allows more meteorites to hit Mars than on Earth (estimates range from just a few thousands of metric tons to as much as 60,000 metric tons.) The team said that temperature changes on Mars, especially during the summertime when it gets warm, could account for a boost of methane release from meteorites, and seasonal dust storms could shake or move the meteorites.
However, while only small amounts of methane are present in the Martian atmosphere, it seems to be coming from very specific, localized sources. Meteorites would likely be falling across the planet.
Additionally, levels of methane vary in the seasons, and are highest in autumn in the northern hemisphere, with localized peaks of 70 parts per billion. There is a sharp decrease in winter, with only a faint band of methane appearing in the atmosphere between 40-50 degrees north.
Methane was first detected in the Martian atmosphere by ground based telescopes in 2003 and confirmed a year later by ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft. In 2009, observations using ground based telescopes showed the first evidence of a seasonal cycle.
Other research has said that the methane in the Martian atmosphere lasts less than a year, making it a flitting – and difficult – feature to study.
Another issue is that the estimates for the amount of meteorites hitting Mars’ surface would likely not bring enough carbon to explain the amount of methane seen in the atmosphere.
The researchers said, however, that their findings give valuable insights into the planet’s atmosphere and these findings would be helpful for future robotic missions to Mars so scientists could fine-tune their experiments, potentially making their trips more valuable.
America’s hugely successful Mars Exploration program is apparently about to be gutted by Obama Administration officials wielding a hefty budget axe in Washington, D.C. Consequently, Russia has been invited to join the program to replace American science instruments and rockets being scrapped.
NASA’s Fiscal 2013 Budget is due to be announced on Monday, February 13 and its widely reported that the Mars science mission budget will be cut nearly in half as part of a significant decline in funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
The proposed deep slash to the Mars exploration budget would kill NASA’s participation in two new missions dubbed “ExoMars” set to launch in 2016 and 2018 as a joint collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).
The ESA/NASA partnership would have dispatched the Trace Gas Orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to search for atmospheric methane, a potential signature for microbial life, and an advanced Astrobiology rover to drill deeper into the surface in 2018. These ambitious missions had the best chance yet to determine if Life ever evolved on Mars.
The 2016 and 2018 ExoMars probes were designed to look for evidence of life on Mars and set the stage for follow on missions to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the Red Planet’s surface and eventually land humans on Mars.
The proposed Mars budget cuts will obliterate these top priority science goals for NASA.
The BBC reports that “ a public announcement by NASA of its withdrawal from the ExoMars program will probably come once President Obama’s 2013 Federal Budget Request is submitted.”
A Feb. 9 article in ScienceInsider, a publication of the journal Science, states that “President Barack Obama will propose a $300 million cut in NASA’s planetary science programs as part of his 2013 request for the agency.”
This would amount to a 20% cut from $1.5 Billion in 2012 to $1.2 Billion in 2013. The bulk of that reduction is aimed squarely at purposefully eliminating the ExoMars program. And further deep cuts are planned in coming years !
The Mars budget of about $580 million this year would be radically reduced by over $200 million, thereby necessitating the end of NASA’s participation in ExoMars. These cuts will have a devastating impact on American scientists and engineers working on Mars missions.
The fallout from the looming science funding cuts also caused one longtime and top NASA manager to resign.
According to ScienceInsider, Ed Weiler, NASA’s science mission chief, says he “quit NASA Over Cuts to Mars Program.”
“The Mars program is one of the crown jewels of NASA,” said Ed Weiler to ScienceInsider.
“In what irrational, Homer Simpson world would we single it out for disproportionate cuts?”
“This is not about the science mission directorate, this is not even about NASA. This is about the country. We are the only country in the world that has demonstrated the capability to land anything on Mars. How can we allow that to be undermined?”
Weiler’s resignation from NASA on Sept. 30, 2011 was sudden and quick, virtually from one day to the next. And it came shortly after the successful launch of NASA’s GRAIL lunar probes, when I spoke to Weiler about Mars and NASA’s Planetary Science missions and the gloomy future outlook. Read my earlier Universe Today story about Weiler’s retirement.
Ed Weiler was the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and his distinguished career spanned almost 33 years.
The dire wrangling over NASA’s 2013 budget has been ongoing for many months and some of the funding reductions had already leaked out. For example NASA had already notified ESA that the US could not provide funding for the Atlas V launchers in 2016 and 2018. Furthermore, Weiler and other NASA managers told me the 2018 mission was de-scoped from two surface rovers down to just one to try and save the Mars mission program.
ESA is now inviting Russian participation to replace the total American pullout, which will devastate the future of Red Planet science in the US. American scientists and science instruments would be deleted from the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions.
The only approved US mission to Mars is the MAVEN orbiter due to blastoff in 2013 – and there are NO cameras aboard MAVEN.
NASA is caught in an inescapable squeeze between rising costs for ongoing and ambitious new missions and an extremely tough Federal budget environment with politicians of both political affiliations looking to cut what they can to rein in the deficit, no matter the consequences of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”.
NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing wrote; “Details of the FY 2013 NASA budget are starting to trickle out. One of the most prominent changes will be the substantial cut to planetary science at SMD [NASA’s Science Mission Directorate]. At the same time, the agency has to eat $1 billion in Webb telescope overruns – half of which will come out of SMD.”
The cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has skyrocketed to $8.7 Billion.
To pay for JWST, NASA is being forced to gut the Mars program and other science missions funded by the same Science Mission Directorate that in the past and present has stirred the public with a mindboggling payoff of astounding science results from many missions that completely reshaped our concept of humankinds place in the Universe.
Meanwhile, China’s space program is rapidly expanding and employing more and more people. China’s scientific and technological prowess and patent applications are increasing and contributing to their fast growing economy as American breakthroughs and capabilities are diminishing.
Under the budget cutting scenario of no vision, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover will be America’s last Mars rover for a long, long time. Curiosity will thus be the third and last generation of US Mars rovers – 4th generation to be Axed !
Mars’ atmosphere consists of 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon, and contains small amounts of oxygen and water, as well as trace amounts of methane. The methane – although small in percentage – might be the most intriguing because the source of this very short-lived gas remains a mystery. And the mystery has just gotten a little more puzzling, as the lifetime of methane in Mars atmosphere appears to be even shorter than scientists had originally thought. Using observations from the Mars Global Surveyor — which functioned in orbit around for almost ten years – a group of scientists from Italy have determined the methane in the atmosphere of Mars lasts less than a year.
Scientists Sergio Fonti (Università del Salento) and Giuseppe Marzo (NASA Ames) reported their findings of evolution of the methane over three Martian years at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome.
“Only small amounts of methane are present in the Martian atmosphere, coming from very localized sources,” said Fonti. “ We’ve looked at changes in concentrations of the gas and found that there are seasonal and also annual variations. The source of the methane could be geological activity or it could be biological – we can’t tell at this point. However, it appears that the upper limit for methane lifetime is less than a year in the Martian atmosphere.”
Levels of methane are highest in autumn in the northern hemisphere, with localized peaks of 70 parts per billion, although methane can be detected across most of the planet at this time of year. There is a sharp decrease in winter, with only a faint band between 40-50 degrees north. Concentrations start to build again in spring and rise more rapidly in summer, spreading across the planet.
“One of the interesting things that we’ve found is that in summer, although the general distribution pattern is much the same as in autumn, there are actually higher levels of methane in the southern hemisphere. This could be because of the natural circulation occurring in the atmosphere, but has to be confirmed by appropriate computer simulations,” said Fonti.
There are three regions in the northern hemisphere where methane concentrations are systematically higher: Tharsis and Elysium, the two main volcano provinces, and Arabia Terrae, which has high levels of underground water ice. Levels are highest over Tharsis, where geological processes, including magmatism, hydrothermal and geothermal activity could be ongoing.
“It’s evident that the highest concentrations are associated with the warmest seasons and locations where there are favorable geological – and hence biological – conditions such as geothermal activity and strong hydration. The higher energy available in summer could trigger the release of gases from geological processes or outbreaks of biological activity,” said Fonti.
The mechanisms for removing methane from the atmosphere are also not clear. Photochemical processes would not break down the gas quickly enough to match observations. However, wind driven processes can add strong oxidisers to the atmosphere, such as the highly reactive salt perchlorate, which could soak up methane much more rapidly.
Martian years are nearly twice as long as Earth years. The team used observations from the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) on Mars Global Surveyor between July 1999 and October 2004. The team studied one of the characteristic spectral features of methane in nearly 3 million TES observations, averaging data together to eliminate noise.
“Our study is the first time that data from an orbiting spectrometer has been used to monitor methane over an extended period, “ Fonti said. “The huge TES dataset has allowed us to follow the methane cycle in the Martian atmosphere with unprecedented accuracy and completeness. Our observations will be very useful in constraining the origins and significance of Martian methane.”
Methane was first detected in the Martian atmosphere by ground based telescopes in 2003 and confirmed a year later by ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft. Last year, observations using ground based telescopes showed the first evidence of a seasonal cycle.