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