The detection of methane on Mars has been interpreted as indicating that geochemical or biotic activities could persist on Mars today1. A number of different measurements of methane show evidence of transient, locally elevated methane concentrations and seasonal variations in background methane concentrations2,3,4,5. These measurements, however, are difficult to reconcile with our current understanding of the chemistry and physics of the Martian atmosphere6,7, which—given methane’s lifetime of several centuries—predicts an even, well mixed distribution of methane1,6,8. Here we report highly sensitive measurements of the atmosphere of Mars in an attempt to detect methane, using the ACS and NOMAD instruments onboard the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter from April to August 2018. We did not detect any methane over a range of latitudes in both hemispheres, obtaining an upper limit for methane of about 0.05 parts per billion by volume, which is 10 to 100 times lower than previously reported positive detections2,4. We suggest that reconciliation between the present findings and the background methane concentrations found in the Gale crater4 would require an unknown process that can rapidly remove or sequester methane from the lower atmosphere before it spreads globally.
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The datasets generated by the NOMAD and ACS instruments and analysed during the current study will be available in the ESA Planetary Science Archive repository, https://archives.esac.esa.int/psa, after the six months prior access period, following the ESA Rules on Information, Data and Intellectual Property. The data used for the figures are available on request from the corresponding author.
The computer codes used to decipher the upper limits of CH4 are available on request from the corresponding author.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
ExoMars is the space mission of ESA and Roscosmos. The ACS experiment is led by IKI, the Space Research Institute in Moscow, assisted by LATMOS in France. The project acknowledges funding by Roscosmos and CNES. The science operations of ACS are funded by Roscosmos and ESA. IKI affiliates acknowledge funding under grant number 14.W03.31.0017 and contract number 0120.0 602993 (0028-2014-0004) of the Russian government. The NOMAD experiment is led by the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB), assisted by co-PI teams from Spain (IAA-CSIC), Italy (INAF-IAPS), and the UK (Open University). This project acknowledges funding by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO), with the financial and contractual coordination of the ESA Prodex Office (PEA 4000103401 and PEA 4000121493), by Spanish MICINN through its Plan Nacional and by European funds under grants ESP2015-65064-C2-1-P and ESP2017-87143-R (MINECO/FEDER), as well as by the UK Space Agency through grants ST/R005761/1, ST/P001262/1, ST/R001405/1, ST/S00145X/1, ST/R001367/1, ST/P001572/1 and ST/R001502/1, and the Italian Space Agency through grant 2018-2-HH.0. This work was supported by the Belgian Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique—FNRS under grant number 30442502 (ET_HOME). We are indebted to the large number of people responsible for designing, building, testing, launching, communicating to and operating the spacecraft and science instruments, whose efforts made the success of TGO possible.
Nature thanks Jonathan Lunine, John Moores, Kevin Zahnle and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.