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European Orbiter Finds No Methane in Mars’ Atmosphere, Puzzling Scientists

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The Trace Gas Orbiter arrived at Mars in 2016. (Credit: TG MEDIALAB/ESA)

The Trace Gas Orbiter has been hunting for methane in Mars’ atmosphere since 2016. (Credit: TG Medialab/ESA)

Methane on Mars

There’s a methane mystery brewing on Mars.

Scientists first detected traces of methane gas on Mars years ago, and it was exciting because the compound is a sign of life here on Earth. But a European orbiter has yet to find any evidence of methane in the planet’s atmosphere, despite being expressly made for the purpose. It’s complicating scientists’ search for life on the Red Planet.

Traces of methane were first detected in Mars’ atmosphere by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express orbiter in 2004. But, while some reveled in the discovery, other researchers believed the instrument wasn’t sensitive enough to create reliable results because it could only measure methane at a level of 10 parts per billion (ppb).

Ten years later, NASA’s Curiosity rover detected methane again in the planet’s Gale Crater. This past summer, Curiosity made another major methane discovery when it found that the Red Planet has a seasonal methane cycle.

Zero, Zip, Nada

But the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at the planet in 2016, has found absolutely no methane in Mars’ atmosphere. The orbiter is using two spectrometers, both specially designed to detect methane in extremely low concentrations. At a semiannual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the TGO team said that these instruments are working perfectly well. The TGO team looked for concentrations of methane as low as 50 parts per trillion and extended their observations almost all the way to the planet’s surface. Still, no methane has been detected.

The data collected by TGO’s spectrometers has some noise that the team must clean up, Ann Carine Vandaele, the principal investigator for TGO’s NOMAD spectrometer, said at the meeting, as reported by Science. “But we already know we can’t see any methane,” she added.

Rethinking Mars

The Curiosity team has suggested that Mars’ methane likely comes from geological sources below the planet’s surface, though they couldn’t rule out organic sources, either. So, while TGO’s results are puzzling, they do help narrow down the search a bit by suggesting that there’s likely no methane coming from above the surface. Sources beneath the surface are still a viable reality, though.

However, these findings do rule out a previous suggestion that massive amounts of carbon from solar system dust enters Mars’ atmosphere every year and is turned into methane by solar radiation,

TGO’s findings might seem like a major flop in the search for life on Mars. But, as Sushin Atreya, a member of the Curiosity science team, explained to Science, it is possible that there could be methane beneath the planet’s surface that is not detected in the atmosphere. In fact, Atreya said that there could be thousands of methane sources, like the spot in Gale Crater where Curiosity measured a methane spike, and atmospheric signals could still be absent.

“I actually did the calculation. It’s going to average out to be a very, very low value, nondetectable,” he said.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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