Measuring Greenland Emissions of Trace Gases as an Analogue for Methane on Mars
Team: Lisa Pratt & Jeffrey White, Indiana University; Alexander Pavlov & Paul Mahaffy, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Kris Zacny, Honeybee Robotics Ltd.; Lance Christensen, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Tullis Onstott, Princeton University
Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) is one of four elements of NASA’s Astrobiology Program. ASTEP sponsors the development of technologies that enable remote searches for life in extreme environments. The program focuses on discovering technologies which will enable study of astrobiology on Earth and on extraterrestrial bodies. Field campaigns conducted on Earth involve studies of hostile locations such as Antarctica and Greenland. Studying extremophile biology in Earth’s harshest environments teaches us how to approach research of potential life on extraterrestrial worlds. Understanding complexities of life on Earth will inform the approach to investigation of extraterrestrial life.
Biological production and destruction of methane on Mars remain highly contentious issues in science. Treating current methane emissions as potential indicators of life (past or present) is prudent for future exploration strategies aimed at life detection. The combined objectives of planetary protection and life detection require development, testing and refinement of new instrumental methods for directly determining the concentration and isotopic composition of methane in Martian samples collected from the lower atmosphere and in shallow boreholes.
We have begun measuring seasonal and diurnal variations in methane collected from deep boreholes, wetland sediments and soils intersecting permafrost at the southwestern edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet. We stage out of Kangerlussuaq International Scientific Support facility in Greenland. Novel instruments will be deployed to measure stable isotopic composition of methane, a “fingerprinting” method for detecting biological activity. Field measurements are validated by analysis at the Stable Isotope Research Facility at Indiana University. Our measurements in Greenland are fundamental to engineering and scientific preparation for a proposed dual landing in 2018 of a NASA rover and a European Space Agency rover.