In March 2016 the ExoMars mission sets off towards the red planet, looking for signs of methane.
Ann Carine Vandaele, Senior Scientist at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, and head of the NOMAD instrument on board the ExoMars mission, explains how and why. “Methane is important because on Earth it’s linked to biological processes,” she says.
Gesturing to the instrument, she says “Inside this box there are three spectrometers which will analyse the composition of the atmosphere of Mars, and methane in particular.”
We know that methane is present in the Martian atmosphere, but it has only been spotted in small quantities near the equator and the poles, and scientists don’t know why. “Different instruments on different missions have already measured methane on Mars. Curiosity, observations from Earth, or PFS on Mars Express,” elaborates Vandaele. “But there are question marks above all of these measurements. And so ExoMars will resolve the methane problem once and for all by using instruments which are dedicated to that gas.”
Methane could be produced by geological processes, but it could also be made by lifeforms on the red planet. However the science team is cautious: “There haven’t been enough tangible evidence to be able to say that there is life, or there was life on Mars,” says Vandaele.
Ahead of the ExoMars 2016 launch, she tells Euronews that “the stress is rising in the team”.
“You have to imagine that an international team has been working on this instrument for several years. We’re waiting for data, we’re waiting for our instrument to be in orbit around Mars. So the stress in the coming months is going to be intense,” she smiles.