Media Releases

University of Toronto atmospheric scientists contributing to 2016 mission searching for signs of life on Mars

August 16, 2010

TORONTO, ON – An international team of scientists including several atmospheric and planetary researchers from the University of Toronto (U of T) will develop an instrument to search for signs of life on Mars during the 2016 ExoMars Trace gas Orbiter NASA-European Space Agency mission.

The instrument, known as MATMOS (Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer), will probe the atmosphere of Mars in search of biological sources of methane, and consequently, signs of life. “We are very excited to be part of this international team contributing to ExoMars,” says team member Barbara Sherwood Lollar of U of T’s Department of Geology. “MATMOS will build on the exciting reports of methane in the Mars atmosphere by investigating a suite of trace gases in the planet’s atmosphere that will help develop models of the planet’s geologic activity and address questions regarding any potential biogenic activity.”

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.

Selected by NASA and the European Space Agency for launch onboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter slated for launch in 2016, MATMOS is being developed in partnership between the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Sherwood Lollar, fellow U of T scientists Jonathan Abbatt of the Department of Chemistry and Kimberly Strong and Kaley Walker of the Department of Physics, along with Dalhousie University’s James Drummond, York University’s Jack McConnell and the University of Winnipeg’s Ed Cloutis, are contributing to the CSA’s effort.

“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 Victoria Hipkin, senior planetary scientist at the CSA and co-principal investigator for MATMOS with Paul Wennberg of Caltech. “The potential for discovery is very exciting,” Hipkin adds.

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.

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For more information, please contact:

Kimberly Strong
Department of Physics
University of Toronto

Sean Bettam
Communications, Faculty of Arts & Science
University of Toronto