Methane can be produced by biological processes or by non-biological processes, such as volcanism. The gas has been very hard to measure in the Martian atmosphere. Curiosity saw a spike in methane levels near its landing area of Gale Crater in 2013 and 2014 during the planet’s autumn. But when autumn rolled around in 2016, the methane spike didn't repeat itself.
While other instruments on Earth have tried to measure methane levels on Mars, the measurements have been inconsistent — presumably because the great distance between the planets makes methane hard to see. So, one of the valuable contributions of TGO will be accurate measurements of methane from up close.
"It enables measurements of the Martian atmosphere that are hundreds of times more accurate than ever before," chief engineer Alexander Trokhimovskiy of Russia's Space Research Institute said in a press statement from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT).
RELATED: NASA Is Testing a Compact Nuclear Reactor to Power Astronauts on Mars
ExoMars is a partnership between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. Russia has two instruments on board the spacecraft, including the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite, which can detect many types of trace atmospheric gases, including methane. ACS includes three spectrometers that can point straight down or across the Martian atmosphere, looking at key molecules for habitability.
With this information in hand, scientists can refine their models of the Martian atmosphere. "MIPT has developed data-processing algorithms and designed a general circulation model of Martian atmosphere, which is required for planning experiments and interpreting their results," Alexander Rodin, the head of institute's applied infrared spectroscopy lab, said in the release.
ExoMars will have two major spacecraft to it. TGO successfully launched in 2016 and arrived at Mars safely, although it lost a small demonstrator lander called Schiaparelli. European and Russian representatives are now developing the ExoMars rover. The rover was originally expected to launch in 2018, but developmental delays pushed the launch back date to 2020. A landing site for the rover should be announced later this year.
WATCH: Curiosity Rover Finds Possible Life on Mars