Using the methane detector on the rover Curiosity scientists now think they have solved the mystery why Curiosity has detected methane in the atmosphere near the surface while Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter fails to detect any methane at all.
[Planetary scientist John E. Moores from York University in Toronto], as well as other Curiosity team members studying wind patterns in Gale Crater, hypothesized that the discrepancy between methane measurements comes down to the time of day they’re taken. Because it needs a lot of power, TLS [Curiosity’s methane detector] operates mostly at night when no other Curiosity instruments are working. The Martian atmosphere is calm at night, Moores noted, so the methane seeping from the ground builds up near the surface where Curiosity can detect it.
The Trace Gas Orbiter, on the other hand, requires sunlight to pinpoint methane about 3 miles, or 5 kilometers, above the surface. “Any atmosphere near a planet’s surface goes through a cycle during the day,” Moores said. Heat from the Sun churns the atmosphere as warm air rises and cool air sinks. Thus, the methane that is confined near the surface at night is mixed into the broader atmosphere during the day, which dilutes it to undetectable levels. “So I realized no instrument, especially an orbiting one, would see anything,” Moores said.
Immediately, the Curiosity team decided to test Moores’ prediction by collecting the first high-precision daytime measurements. TLS measured methane consecutively over the course of one Martian day, bracketing one nighttime measurement with two daytime ones. With each experiment, SAM sucked in Martian air for two hours, continuously removing the carbon dioxide, which makes up 95% of the planet’s atmosphere. This left a concentrated sample of methane that TLS could easily measure by passing an infrared laser beam through it many times, one that’s tuned to use a precise wavelength of light that is absorbed by methane.
“John predicted that methane should effectively go down to zero during the day, and our two daytime measurements confirmed that,” said Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator of SAM, who’s based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. TLS’ nighttime measurement fit neatly within the average the team had already established. “So that’s one way of putting to bed this big discrepancy,” Mahaffy said.
While this explains the data conflict, it does not yet explain where the methane is coming from. It is suspected it is coming from underground, but why and from what is still unclear. Nor do scientists yet understand why it doesn’t accumulate enough in the atmosphere for Trace Gas Orbiter to detect it. Something is causing the methane to break up sooner than expected.
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