Testing Martian Methane on Earth

Categories: Also in News Mars

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

Rural eastern Washington will become a testing ground in support of a mission to explore the martian atmosphere for potential evidence of life under a recently funded NASA project developed by scientists from Cornell University, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and Washington State University.

The proposed mission is intended to help determine whether periodic plumes of methane gas previously detected within the martian atmosphere are the product of biological or other activity, such as volcanism.

The focus of the mission will be on detecting, locating and characterizing the sources of methane or other potentially biogenic plumes on the planet’s surface, which could greatly increase our understanding of Mar’s climate and biological history. The mission is also expected to provide new technologies with possible applications in the exploration of other planetary bodies within our solar system, including Earth, the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan, and even the subsurface ocean of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Proposed by Don Banfield, a senior research associate with the Cornell Department of Astronomy; Michael Andrew Mischna, a scientist with the JPL in Pasadena; and Brian Lamb, Regents Professor and Boeing Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering with the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research at WSU, the project was initially funded by NASA with a grant of $1.1M.

Brian K. Lamb, WSU Regents Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering. Credit: Washington State University

Pinpointing a plume on Mars and retracing its dispersal pattern to determine and analyze its source is a task which requires the development of new observational techniques and exploration strategies beyond NASA’s current arsenal. It will also require close coordination between an orbiting satellite and ground-based vehicles.

"To even consider the feasibility of detecting and precisely locating such a target on Mars, we need to more fully understand the nature of martian atmospheric plumes, how and when one might expect to detect them, and how plume dispersal properties can guide us to their sources,” said Lamb, who will lead the field testing effort by WSU.

"Atmospheric plume sources are crucial places for improving our understanding of Mars past and present climate and biologic history and thus important to locate and characterize,” he said. "Identifying a plume source on Mars would make it a high priority target for future missions, warranting further in situ study regardless of the source type.”

A plume source on the surface of Mars is likely to be similar to a fumarole or hot spring on earth, Lamb said, making it difficult to locate it within more than a few kilometers from orbit. A martian rover will likely be used to locate it more precisely, as well as to conduct detailed sampling studies.

Lamb said the field studies will be conducted in an as-yet-undetermined location in a desert-like environment in eastern Washington, which is known to have similar wind speeds, boundary layer heights, and static stability to that typically found on Mars. The overall goal will be to release tracer gases simulating a plume and directly test our ability to track the plume to the source using instruments mounted in a vehicle. The field studies are expected to be conducted over the next two years.

Lamb and his group at the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research at WSU have been involved in a wide variety of tracer field programs during the past twenty years and have an extensive array of field instrumentation for micrometeorology and plume studies.