36th DPS Meeting, 8-12 November 2004
Session 26 Mars Atmosphere I: Methane and High Altitude
Oral, Thursday, November 11, 2004, 8:30-10:00am, Lewis

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[26.03] First Detection of Methane in the Martian Atmosphere: Evidence for Life?

V. A. Krasnopolsky (Catholic University of America), J. P. Maillard (Insitute d'Astrophysique de Paris), T. C. Owen (University of Hawaii)

Using the Fourier Transform Spectrometer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, we observed a spectrum of Mars at the P-branch of the strongest CH4 band at 3.3 \mum with resolving power of 180,000 for the apodized spectrum. Summing up the spectral intervals at the expected positions of the 15 strongest Doppler-shifted martian lines, we detected the absorption by martian methane at a 3.7 sigma level which is exactly centered in the summed spectrum. The observed CH4 mixing ratio is 10 ± 3 ppb. Total photochemical loss of CH4 in the martian atmosphere is equal to 2.2x105 cm-2 s-1, the CH4 lifetime is 340 years, and methane should be well mixed in the atmosphere. Heterogeneous loss of atmospheric methane is probably negligible, while the sink of CH4 during its diffusion through the regolith may be significant. There are no processes of CH4 formation in the atmosphere, so the photochemical loss must therefore be balanced by abiogenic and biogenic sources. Outgassing from Mars is weak, the latest volcanism is at least 10 million years old, and thermal emission imaging from the Mars Odyssey orbiter does not reveal any hot spots on Mars. Hydrothermal systems can hardly be warmer than the room temperature at which abiogenic production of methane is very low in terrestrial waters. Therefore a significant production of hydrothermal and magmatic methane is not very likely on Mars. The calculated average production of CH4 by cometary impacts is 2% of the methane loss. Production of methane by meteorites and interplanetary dust does not exceed 4% of the methane loss. Methane cannot originate from an extinct biosphere, as in the case of “natural gas” on Earth, given the exceedingly low limits on organic matter set by the Viking landers and the dry recent history which has been extremely hostile to the macroscopic life needed to generate the gas. Therefore, methanogenesis by living subterranean organisms is a plausible explanation for this discovery. Our estimates of the biomass and its production using the measured CH4 abundance show that the martian biota may be extremely scarce and Mars may be generally sterile except for some oases.

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 36 #4
© 2004. The American Astronomical Soceity.