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Mars’ Seasonal Methane Cycles

Fascinating piece by Eric Hand, for Science:

In the southern winter, some of that CO2 freezes out onto the large southern polar cap, making the overall atmosphere thinner. That boosts the concentration of any residual methane, which doesn’t freeze, and by the end of northern summer this methane-enriched air makes its way north to Curiosity’s location, Forget says. Seasonal variations in dust storms and levels of UV light could also affect the abundance of methane, if interplanetary dust is its primary source.

But, Webster said at the meeting, the seasonal signal is some three times larger than those mechanisms could explain. Maybe the methane—whatever its source—is absorbed and released from pores in surface rocks at rates that depend on temperature, he said. Another explanation, “one that no one talks about but is in the back of everyone's mind,” is biological activity, says Mike Mumma, a planetary scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “You’d expect life to be seasonal.”

Another hypothesis, which has an opportunity to be tested in just a few weeks:

Other scientists are looking skyward. Marc Fries, the cosmic dust curator at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, says the source of methane spikes could be the hail of tiny meteors that falls when a planet crosses a comet’s orbit and sweeps up carbon-rich dust and debris shed by the comet. Fries says that as the dust particles vaporize at altitudes of tens of kilometers, the same chemical reaction that produces methane from interplanetary dust at the surface would take place more quickly, driven by the stronger UV light at high altitudes. All the claimed methane spikes over the past 2 decades occurred within about 2 weeks of a known martian meteor shower, Fries and his colleagues found. “It could be a cause, and it could be a coincidence,” he says.

It happens that Fries will have a chance to test the hypothesis. On 24 January, Mars will have a close brush—less than a tenth of the Earth-moon distance—with the orbit of comet C/2007 H2 Skiff. Mumma is skeptical about Fries’s idea, but he will nevertheless be watching for methane with his telescope in Hawaii in the days after the encounter. The MAVEN and Curiosity teams also plan to watch. “This is a great opportunity to test this hypothesis,” Crismani says.