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York researchers aid search for signs of life on Mars
published August 11, 2010

Photo credit: jasonb42882 on Flickr

Researchers from the Faculty of Science & Engineering will be part of a team of Canadian scientists responsible for a device that will measure and diagnose components of Mars’s atmosphere. The instrument, dubbed MATMOS (Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer), is a partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It will ride aboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a joint mission by NASA and the European Space Agency, slated to launch in 2016.

York scientists will engage in atmospheric modelling and analysis, constructing a weather and chemical forecast of Mars that will help analyze the MATMOS composition data to assess the sources of various component gases. Methane was discovered on Mars in 2003 in greater abundance than expected; because the gas is readily produced by biological activity, it is considered a key biomarker for signs of life.

“We’re looking to find out what is the source of the methane – is it biogenic or geological in origin? Much of the methane we see on Earth is life-based. Determining its source on Mars leads us one step closer to the question of whether the planet can support life,” says Jack McConnell, professor of atmospheric science in York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering.

An instrumental role
The MATMOS device will look at the atmosphere edgewise, rather than simply from above. This will enhance its ability to see multiple layers of the atmosphere.

“Think of it like looking down from the CN Tower at the smog in Toronto. When you’re peering down through it, the sky usually looks relatively clear. But if you were to look at it from the side, you’d be able to see much more pollution,” he says.

The device also has a high spectral resolution, enabling it to more accurately detect the presence of a variety of gases. Besides methane, scientists will also monitor CO2, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, water vapour and ozone.

McConnell, alongside York colleagues Jim Whiteway and Jacek Kaminski, will lend expertise to another instrument aboard the ExoMars orbiter: the SOIR-NOMAD (Solar Occultation in the InfraRed – Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery) experiment. They will contribute their knowledge in the areas of atmospheric modelling and cloud formation on Mars.

The Canadian science team includes prominent Canadian atmospheric and planetary researchers from Dalhousie University, the University of Toronto and the University of Winnipeg.

The MATMOS instrument will build on the expertise Canada has acquired from the CSA’s SCISAT-I mission, which has been using a similar technique and technology to study ozone depletion in Earth’s atmosphere since 2003. The CSA will fund the conceptual phase of the Canadian contribution to MATMOS and has selected ABB Bomem as the prime contractor for the Canadian elements. Canada’s contribution will include the heart of the instrument – a detection instrument known as an interferometer – as well as a solar imager and optical components that will collect light for the entire instrument.