Could Dust Devils Create Methane in Mars’ Atmosphere?


Methane on Mars has long perplexed scientists; the short-lived gas has been measured in surprising quantities in Mars’ atmosphere over several seasons, sometimes in fairly large plumes. Scientists have taken this to be evidence of Mars being an ‘active’ planet, either geologically or biologically. But a group of researchers from Mexico have come up with a different – and rather unexpected – source of methane: dust storms and dust devils.

“We propose a new production mechanism for methane based on the effect of electrical discharges over iced surfaces,” reports a paper published in Geophysical Research letters, written by a team led by Arturo Robledo-Martinez from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Azcapotzalco, Mexico.

“The discharges, caused by electrification of dust devils and sand storms, ionize gaseous CO2 and water molecules and their byproducts recombine to produce methane.”

Graph from the paper Electrical discharges as a possible source of methane on Mars: Lab simulation, Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, L17202, doi:10.1029/2012GL053255.

In a laboratory simulation, they showed that that pulsed electrical discharges over ice samples in a synthetic Martian atmosphere produced about 1.41×1016 molecules of methane per joule of applied energy. The results of the electrical discharge experiment were compared with photolysis induced with UV laser radiation and it was found that both produce methane, although the efficiency of photolysis is one-third of that of the discharge.

The scientists don’t rule out that methane may indeed come from other sources as well, but the way that dust devils and storms can quickly form means they can also quickly generate methane. “The present mechanism may be acting in parallel with other proposed sources but its main advantage is that it can generate methane very quickly and thus explain the generation of plumes,” the team writes.

Methane has been observed in Mars’ atmosphere since 1999, but in 2009, scientists studying the atmosphere of Mars over several Martian years with telescopes here on Earth announced they had found three regions of active release of methane over areas that had evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water.

They observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane. The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons — spring and summer — which is also when dust devils tend to form.

Methane on Mars is enticing because it only lasts a few hundred years in Mars’ atmosphere, meaning it has to be continually replaced. And in the back of everyone’s minds has been the possibility of some sort of Martian life producing it.

“Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane … indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas,” said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md in 2009. “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.”

The researchers in 2009 thought that the methane was being released from Mars’ interior, perhaps because the permafrost blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air.

The unknown has been where the methane has been coming from; if it is being released from the interior, it could be produced by either geologic processes such as serpentinization, a simple water/rock reaction or biologic processes of microbes (or something bigger) releasing methane as a waste product.

But if dust devils and dust storms can also produce methane, the mystery becomes a little more mundane.

The new research by the team from Mexico also mentioned fissures in the surface, but for a different reason, saying that the electric field of dust devils is amplified by the topology of the soil: “The electrical field produced by a dust devil can not only overcome the weak dielectric strength of the Martian atmosphere, but also penetrate into cracks on the soil and so reach the ice lying at the bottom, with added strength, due to the topography of the terrain,” the team wrote.

At a concentration of about 10 to 50 parts per billion by volume, methane is still a trace element in the Martian atmosphere, and indeed the sharp variations in its concentration that have been observed have been difficult to explain. Hopefully the research teams can coordinate follow-up observations of methane production during the dust devil and dust storm seasons on Mars.

Read the team’s abstract.

Read our article from 2009 about Mars Methane.

African Lake Has a Twin on Titan


A large lake on Saturn’s cloud-covered Titan seems very similar to the Etosha Pan, a salt-encrusted dry lakebed in northern Namibia that periodically fills with water. As it turns out, Titan’s “great lake” may also be temporary.

Ontario Lacus, so named because of its similarity both in shape and size to Lake Ontario here on Earth, was first discovered near the south pole of Titan by the Cassini spacecraft in 2009. Its smooth, dark appearance in radar images indicated a uniform and reflective surface, implying a large — although likely shallow — body of liquid.

Of course, on Titan the liquid isn’t water — it’s methane, which is the main ingredient of the hydrologic cycle found on the giant moon. That far from the Sun the temperatures at Titan’s poles fall to a frigid -300ºF (-185ºC), much too cold for water to exist as a liquid and so, on this world, methane has taken its place.

A research team led by Thomas Cornet of the Université de Nantes, France has taken a closer look at Cassini’s radar data of Ontario Lacus and found evidence of channels carved into the southern portion. According to the team, this likely indicates that the lakebed surface is exposed.

Cassini image of Ontario Lacus. (NASA/JPL/SSI)

“We conclude that the solid floor of Ontario Lacus is most probably exposed in those areas,” said Cornet.

In addition, sediment layers surrounding the lake suggest that the liquid level has varied.

All in all, this reveals a striking resemblance between Ontario Lacus and Namibia’s Etosha Pan — an “ephemeral lake” that is dry for much of the year, occasionally filling with a shallow layer of water which evaporates, leaving salty rings of sediment.

The inherent otherworldly nature of Etosha Pan is further underlined — and perhaps foreshadowed! — by its use as a backdrop in the 1968 sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although Ontario Lacus was initially thought to be permanently filled with liquid hydrocarbons, the team’s findings draw a strong correlation with this well-known Earthly environment, suggesting a much more temporary nature and showing the value of comparative research.

Satellite image of Etosha Pan, acquired on April 28, 2012. (Chelys/EOSnap)

“These results emphasise the importance of comparative planetology in modern planetary sciences,” said Nicolas Altobelli, Cassini project scientist for ESA.”Finding familiar geological features on alien worlds like Titan allows us to test the theories explaining their formation.”

Read the press release from ESA here.

Image credits: Cassini radar image JPL/NASA. Envisat radar image ESA. Composite image: LPGNantes.

Mars 2016 Methane Orbiter: Searching for Signs of Life


The new joint Mars exploration program of NASA and ESA is quickly pushing forward to implement an agreed upon framework to construct an ambitious new generation of red planet orbiters and landers starting with the 2016 and 2018 launch windows.

The European-led ExoMars Trace Gas Mission Orbiter (TGM) has been selected as the first spacecraft of the joint initiative and is set to launch in January 2016 aboard a NASA supplied Atlas 5 rocket for a 9 month cruise to Mars. The purpose is to study trace gases in the martian atmosphere, in particular the sources and concentration of methane which has significant biological implications. Variable amounts of methane have been detected by a martian orbiter and ground based telescopes on earth. The orbiter will likely be accompanied by a small static lander provided by ESA and dubbed the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM).

The NASA Mars Program is shifting its science strategy to coincide with the new joint venture with ESA and also to build upon recent discoveries from the current international fleet of martian orbiters and surface explorers Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix (see my earlier mars mosaics). Doug McCuiston, NASA’s director of Mars Exploration at NASA HQ told me in an interview that, “NASA is progressing quickly from ‘Follow the Water’ through assessing habitability and on to a theme of ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’. Looking directly for life is probably a needle in the haystack, but the signatures of past or present life may be more wide spread through organics, methane sources, etc”.

NASA and ESA will issue an “Announcement of Opportunity for the orbiter in January 2010” soliciting proposals for a suite of science instruments according to McCuiston. “The science instruments will be competitively selected. They are open to participation by US scientists who can also serve as the Principal Investigators (PI’s)”. Proposals are due in 3 months and will be jointly evaluated by NASA and ESA. Instrument selections are targeted for announcement in July 2010 and the entire cost of the NASA funded instruments is cost capped at $100 million.

Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA
Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA

“The 2016 mission must still be formally approved by NASA after a Preliminary Design Review, which will occur either in late 2010 or early 2011. Funding until then is covered in the Mars Program’s Next Decade wedge, where all new-start missions reside until approved, or not, by the Agency”, McCuiston told me. ESA’s Council of Ministers just gave the “green light” and formally approved an initial budget of 850 million euros ($1.2 Billion) to start implementing their ExoMars program for the 2016 and 2018 missions on 17 December at ESA Headquarters in Paris, France. Another 150 million euros will be requested within two years to complete the funding requirement for both missions.

ESA has had to repeatedly delay its own ExoMars spacecraft program since it was announced several years ago due to growing complexity, insufficient budgets and technical challenges resulting in a de-scoping of the science objectives and a reduction in weight of the landed science payload. The ExoMars rover was originally scheduled to launch in 2009 and is now set for 2018 as part of the new architecture.

The Trace Gas orbiter combines elements of ESA’s earlier proposed ExoMars orbiter and NASA’s proposed Mars Science Orbiter. As currently envisioned the spacecraft will have a mass of about 1100 kg and carry a roughly 115 kg science payload, the minimum deemed necessary to accomplish its goals. The instruments must be highly sensitive in order to be capable of detecting the identity and extremely low concentration of atmospheric trace gases, characterizing the spatial and temporal variation of methane and other important species, locating the source origin of the trace gases and determining if they are caused by biologic or geologic processes. Current photochemical models cannot explain the presence of methane in the martain atmosphere nor its rapid appearance and destruction in space, time or quantity.

An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer
An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer

Among the instruments planned are a trace gas detector and mapper, a thermal infrared imager and both a wide angle camera and a high resolution stereo color camera (1 – 2 meter resolution). “All the data will be jointly shared and will comply with NASA’s policies on fully open access and posting into the Planetary Data System”, said McCuiston.
Another key objective of the orbiter will be to establish a data relay capability for all surface missions up to 2022, starting with 2016 lander and two rovers slotted for 2018. This timeframe could potentially coincide with Mars Sample Return missions, a long sought goal of many scientists.

If the budget allows, ESA plans to piggyback a small companion lander (EDM) which would test critical technologies for future missions. McCuiston informed me that, “The objective of this ESA Technology Demonstrator is validating the ability to land moderate payloads, so the landing site selection will not be science-driven. So expect something like Meridiani or Gusev—large, flat and safe. NASA will assist ESA engineering as requested, and within ITAR constraints.” EDM will use parachutes, radar and clusters of pulsing liquid propulsion thrusters to land.

“ESA plans a competitive call for instruments on their 3-4 kg payload”, McCuiston explained. “The Announcement of Opportunity will be open to US proposers as well so there may be some US PI’s. ESA wants a camera to ‘prove’ they got to the ground. Otherwise there is no significant role planned for NASA in the EDM”.

The lander would likely function as a weather station and be relatively short lived, perhaps 8 Sols or martian days, depending on the capacity of the batteries. ESA is not including a long term power source, such as from solar arrays, so the surface science will thus be limited in duration.

The orbiter and lander would separate upon arrival at Mars. The orbiter will use a series of aerobraking maneuvers to eventually settle into a 400 km high circular science orbit inclined at about 74 degrees.

The joint Mars architecture was formally agreed upon last summer at a bilateral meeting between Ed Weiler (NASA) and David Southwood (ESA) in Plymouth, UK. Weiler is NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and Southwood is ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. They signed an agreement creating the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) which essentially weds the Mars programs of NASA and ESA and delineates their respective program responsibilities and goals.

“The key to moving forward on Mars exploration is international collaboration with Europe”, Weiler said to me in an interview. “We don’t have enough money to do these missions separately. The easy things have been done and the new ones are more complex and expensive. Cost overruns on Mars Science Lab (MSL) have created budgetary problems for future mars missions”. To pay for the MSL overrun, funds have to be taken from future mars budget allocations from fiscal years 2010 to 2014.

“2016 is a logical starting point to work together. NASA can have a 2016 mission if we work with Europe but not if we work alone. We can do so much more by working together since we both have the same objectives scientifically and want to carry out the same types of mission”. Weiler and Southwood instructed their respective science teams to meet and lay out a realistic and scientifically justifiable approach. Weiler explained to me that his goal and hope was to reinstate an exciting Mars architecture with new spacecraft launching at every opportunity which occurs every 26 months and which advance the state of the art for science. “It’s very important to demonstrate a critical new technology on each succeeding mission”.

More on the 2018 mission plan and beyond in a follow up report.

Mars from orbit.  Valles Marineris and Volcanic region
Mars from orbit. Valles Marineris and Volcanic region