Study Programs

Methane on Mars

Team Leads
Prof. Yuk Yung (Caltech)
Dr. Pin Chen (JPL)
Prof. Kenneth Nealson (USC)

Opening Workshop: December 7-11, 2015

We will investigate and explore the best route for solving the profound puzzles arising from the recent ground-truth detection of methane on Mars by the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) onboard Curiosity [Webster et al. 2014]. This discovery reorients our understanding of the Martian environment and its potential for life.

The current theoretical framework of Mars does not entail any active source of CH4, and it is predicted to have a lifetime of ~300 years in the Martian atmosphere - far shorter than the planet's age [Summers et al. 2002, Nair et al. 2005, Atreya et al. 2007, Lefevre & Forget 2009]. Hence, methane's atmospheric existence requires a continually replenishing source, potentially subverting assumptions of a geologically and biologically dead Mars [Allen et al. 2006]. Furthermore, methane's high variability despite fast atmospheric mixing (compared to its atmospheric lifetime) defies explanation. This discovery necessitates a new era of research pursuing answers to the questions: What is generating methane, and how is it destroyed or sequestered on Mars?

This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars.
(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)

Under this program, an interdisciplinary group of experts will develop an exploration and technology-development strategy for resolving methane sources and sinks on Mars. Existing hypotheses of Martian methane sources include gas-water-rock chemistry and microbes (methanogens). If proven, the former implies the existence of environs offering liquid water and chemical sources of energy - i.e. habitability - while the latter implies the discovery of life on Mars. Solving these puzzles innately requires a concerted research effort across many disciplines and major technological advancements, including new measurement and exploration capabilities and methodologies. KISS's unique think-and-do-tank approach, along with Caltech/JPL's leadership in Mars exploration makes this program arguably the world's best platform for catalyzing the synthesis of a grand strategy.

For questions contact: Yuk Yung, Pin Chen, Kenneth Nealson, or Michele Judd


Yuk Yung

Study Co-Lead Yuk Yung, from Caltech.

Pin Chen

Study Co-Lead Pin Chen, from JPL.

Kenneth Nealson

Study Co-Lead Kenneth Nealson, from USC