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Canadians to Help Search for Life on Mars

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
August 7, 2010
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The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced today that it will share leadership for a new science instrument that will probe the atmosphere of Mars in search of biological sources of methane, and consequently, signs of life. The instrument, known as MATMOS (Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer), is a partnership between the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the CSA and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

MATMOS has been selected by NASA and the European Space Agency for launch on board the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, slated for launch in 2016.

MATMOS will help scientists attempt to solve the mystery of methane on Mars by confirming seasonal distribution patterns, and providing new interpretations of the origin of the gas on Mars. Methane was discovered on Mars in 2003 in greater abundance than expected. It is a possible biomarker for signs of life, since the gas is readily produced by biological activity. “MATMOS will provide a fingerprint of the Mars atmosphere that will help unlock the mystery of mars methane. The key is MATMOS’ very high sensitivity. It will be able to measure the distribution of methane and other trace gases in the atmosphere with altitude and season -where and when they appear will provide clues to the surface and climate processes that produce them,” says Dr Victoria Hipkin, senior planetary scientist at the CSA, who will be co-Principal Investigator for MATMOS along with Dr Paul Wennberg of Caltech. “The potential for discovery is very exciting,”
Hipkin adds.

The Canadian science team includes prominent Canadian atmospheric and planetary researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax (Dr James Drummond); the University of Toronto (Drs Jonathan Abbatt, Barbara Sherwood-Lollar, Kimberly Strong, and Kaley Walker),York University (Dr Jack McConnell) and the University of Winnipeg
(Dr Ed Cloutis).

The MATMOS instrument will build on the expertise Canada has acquired from the CSA’s SCISAT 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 of Quebec City as the prime contractor for the Canadian elements (the same company that built elements of SCISAT’s hardware). Canada’s contribution will include the heart of the instrument: the critical subsystem of a detection instrument known as an interferometer; a solar imager; and optical components that will collect light for the entire instrument.