ESAs ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has spotted new gas signatures at Mars. These unlock new secrets about the martian atmosphere, and will enable a more accurate determination of whether there is methane, a gas associated with biological or geological activity, at the planet.
The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has been studying the Red Planet from orbit for over two years. The mission aims to understand the mixture of gases that make up the martian atmosphere, with a special focus on the mystery surrounding the presence of methane there.
Meanwhile, the spacecraft has now spotted never-before-seen signatures of ozone (O3) and carbon dioxide (CO2), based on a full martian year of observations by its sensitive Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (ACS). The findings are reported in two new papers published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, one led by Kevin Olsen of the University of Oxford, UK and another led by Alexander Trokhimovskiy of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia.
These features are both puzzling and surprising, says Kevin.
They lie over the exact wavelength range where we expected to see the strongest signs of methane. Before this discovery, the CO2 feature was completely unknown, and this is the first time ozone on Mars has been identified in this part of the infrared wavelength range.
The martian atmosphere is dominated by CO2, which scientists observe to gauge temperatures, track seasons, explore air circulation, and more. Ozone which forms a layer in the upper atmosphere on both Mars and Earth helps to keep atmospheric chemistry stable. Both CO2 and ozone have been seen at Mars by spacecraft such as ESAs Mars Express, but the exquisite sensitivity of the ACS instrument on TGO was able to reveal new details about how these gases interact with light.
Observing ozone in the range where TGO hunts for methane is a wholly unanticipated result.
Scientists have mappedhow martian ozone varies with altitude before. So far, however, this has largely taken place via methods that rely upon the gas signatures in the ultraviolet, a technique which only allows measurement athigh altitudes (over 20 km above the surface).
The new ACS results show that it is possible to map martian ozone also in the infrared, so its behavior can be probed at lower altitudes to build a more detailed view of ozones role in the planets climate.
This graphic summarises significant measurement attempts of methane at Mars. Reports of methane have been made by Earth-based telescopes, ESAs Mars Express from orbit around Mars, and NASAs Curiosity located on the surface at Gale Crater; they have also reported measurement attempts with no or very little methane detected. More recently, the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter reported an absence of methane, and provided a very low upper limit. Credit: ESA
One of the key objectives of TGO is to explore methane. To date, signs of martian methane tentatively spied by missions including ESAs Mars Express from orbit and NASAs Curiosity rover on the surface are variable and somewhat enigmatic.
This graphic depicts some of the possible ways methane might be added or removed from the atmosphere. How methane is created and destroyed on Mars is an important question in understanding the various detections and non-detections of methane at Mars, with differences in both time and location. Although making up a very small amount of the overall atmospheric inventory, methane in particular holds key clues to the planets current state of activity. Credit: ESA
While also generated by geological processes, most of the methane on Earth is produced by life, from bacteria to livestock and human activity. Detecting methane on other planets is therefore hugely exciting. This is especially true given that the gas is known to break down in around 400 years, meaning that any methane present must have been produced or released in the relatively recent past.
Discovering an unforeseen CO2 signature where we hunt for methane is significant, says Alexander Trokhimovskiy. This signature could not be accounted for before, and may therefore have played a role in detections of small amounts of methane at Mars.
The observations analyzed by Alexander, Kevin, and colleagues were mostly performed at different times to those supporting detections of martian methane. Besides, the TGO data cannot account for large plumes of methane, only smaller amounts and so, currently, there is no direct disagreement between missions.
This graph shows a new CO2 spectral feature, never before observed in the laboratory, discovered in the martian atmosphere by the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (ACS) MIR instrument on ESAs ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).The graph shows the full extent of the magnetic dipole absorption band of the 16O12C16O molecule (one of the various isotopologues of CO2).The top panel shows the ACS MIR spectra (shown in black) along with the modeled contribution of CO2 and H2O (shown in blue); the model is based on the HITRAN 2016 database.The bottom panel shows the difference between data and model, or residuals, revealing the structure of the absorption band in detail. The calculated positions of spectral lines are marked with arrows, in different colors corresponding to different branches of the absorption band (red stands for the P-branch, green for the Q-branch and blue for the R-branch).Credit: A. Trokhimovskiy et al. (2020)
In fact, were actively working on coordinating measurements with other missions, clarifies Kevin. Rather than disputing any previous claims, this finding is a motivator for all teams to look closer the more we know, the more deeply and accurately we can explore Mars atmosphere.
Methane aside, the findings highlight just how much we will learn about Mars as a result of the ExoMars program.
These findings enable us to build a fuller understanding of our planetary neighbor, adds Alexander.
Mars is about half the size of Earth by diameter and has a much thinner atmosphere, with an atmospheric volume less than 1% of Earths. The atmospheric composition is also significantly different: primarily carbon dioxide-based, while Earths is rich in nitrogen and oxygen. The atmosphere has evolved: evidence on the surface suggest that Mars was once much warmer and wetter. Credit: ESA
Ozone and CO2 are important in Mars atmosphere. By not accounting for these gases properly, we run the risk of mischaracterizing the phenomena or properties we see.
Additionally, the surprising discovery of the new CO2 band at Mars, never before observed in the laboratory, provides exciting insight for those studying how molecules interact both with one another and with light and searching for the unique chemical fingerprints of these interactions in space.
Together, these two studies take a significant step towards revealing the true characteristics of Mars: towards a new level of accuracy and understanding, says Alexander.
As its name suggests, the TGO aims to characterize any trace gases in Mars atmosphere that could arise from active geological or biological processes on the planet, and identify their origin.
Artists impression of the ExoMars 2020 rover (foreground), surface science platform (background) and the Trace Gas Orbiter (top). Not to scale. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
The ExoMars program consists of two missions: TGO, which was launched in 2016 and will be joined by the Rosalind Franklin rover and the Kazachok landing platform, due to lift off in 2022. These will take instruments complementary to ACS to the martian surface, examining the planets atmosphere from a different perspective, and share the core objective of the ExoMars programme: to search for signs of past or present life on the Red Planet.
These findings are the direct result of hugely successful and ongoing collaboration between European and Russian scientists as part of ExoMars, says ESA TGO Project Scientist Hkan Svedhem.
They set new standards for future spectral observations, and will help us to paint a more complete picture of Mars atmospheric properties including where and when there may be methane to be found, which remains a key question in Mars exploration.
Additionally, these findings will prompt a thorough analysis of all the relevant data weve collected to date and the prospect of new discovery in this way is, as always, very exciting. Each piece of information revealed by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter marks progress towards a more accurate understanding of Mars, and puts us one step closer to unraveling the planets lingering mysteries.
First detection of ozone in the mid-infrared at Mars: implications for methane detection by K. S. Olsen et al. (2020) (DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202038125) and First observation of the magnetic dipole CO2 absorption band at 3.3 m in the atmosphere of Mars by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter ACS instrument by A. Trokhimovskiy et al. (2020) (DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202038134) are published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.
The studies utilized the Mid-InfraRed (MIR) channel of the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (ACS) on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), reporting the first observation of the 30003060 cm-1 ozone (O3) band and the discovery of the 3300 cm-1 16O12C16O magnetic dipole band (which both overlap with the 29003300cm-1 methane 3 absorption band) at Mars.
ExoMars is a joint endeavor of the European Space Agency and Roscosmos.
The ACS instrument is led by the Principal Investigator team at the Space Research Institute (IKI) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) in Moscow, Russia, assisted by the CoPrincipal Investigator team from CNRS/LATMOS, France, and co-investigators from other ESA Member states.
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