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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

ExoMars and the Trace Gas Orbiter

ExoMars and the Trace Gas Orbiter

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Saturday, April 28, 2018/Categories: natural history, photography, space science, environment, adventure

       Ice on Rim of Korolev Crater, Northern Hemisphere Mars (credit: ESA)

The European Space Agency (ESA) and its Russian counterpart developed the ExoMars program to address the question of whether life has existed on Mars. ‘Exo’ refers to exobiology or the possible existence of life beyond Earth. The ESA launched the Trace Gas Orbiter to sample directly the Martian atmosphere for gasses present in very small quanties, less than 1% of the planet's atmosphere. In 2016 the orbiter carried a rover that was to move around the landscape and drill into the surface. The Trace Gas Orbiter arrived at Mars and ejected the rover for landing on Mars. Unfortunately, the module received a miss-communication and crashed on landing. The oribiter is now placed in a near-circular 240 mile altitude orbit ahead of its trace gas measuring goals. The gas of prime interest is methane that could be linked to existing geological or biological activity. 

On Earth, living organisms release most of the planet’s methane. It is also the main component of naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas reservoirs and a contribution is also provided by volcanic and hydro-thermal activity. Because of the key role Earth's biology plays methane production, confirming the existence of methane on Mars, and distinguishing between the potential sources, is a top priority of the Trace Gas Orbiter. ESA says that:

methane should have a short lifetime, approximately 400 years, because it is broken down by ultraviolet light. Mixing by Martian winds should quickly lead to uniform background concentrations. However, previous observations by ESA's Mars Express suggest seasonal variations in methane abundance occur, with concentrations varying with location and time.

If the Trace Gas Orbiter measurements determine this to be the case, there must be an active source of methane to replenish the supply. Methane on Earth can be produced by soil microorganisms (methanogens) which produce the gas as a byproduct of metabolism. Let these exciting exobiology measurements begin!



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