Low temperature production and exhalation of methane from serpentinized rocks on Earth: A potential analog for methane production on Mars
We evaluate, based on terrestrial analogs, the potential flux, origin and isotopic signature of methane (CH4) from serpentinized or serpentinizing rocks on Mars. The Tekirova ophiolites, in Turkey, have been shown to release, either via focused vents or through diffuse microseepage, substantial amounts of CH4 which could be produced via catalyzed abiotic methanation (Sabatier reaction) at low temperatures (<50 °C). Serpentinized ultramafic rocks on Mars are likely to have necessary chemical constituents for methane production and fractures for release of gas to the atmosphere, similar to those on Earth. A simple, first-order estimation gas-advection model suggests that methane fluxes on the order of several mg m-2 d-1, similar to microseepage observed in terrestrial ophiolites, could occur in martian rocks. High temperature, hydrothermal conditions may not be necessary for abiotic CH4 synthesis on Mars: low temperature (<50 °C) methanation is possible in the presence of catalysts like ruthenium, rhodium or, more commonly, chromium minerals, which occur in terrestrial ophiolites as in martian mantle meteorites. The terrestrial analog environment of abiotic microseepage may thus explain production of methane on Mars in the ancient past or at present. The wide range of martian 12C/13C and D/H ratios and the potential secondary alteration of CH4 by abiotic oxidation, as observed on Earth, could result in large isotope variations of methane on Mars. CH4 isotopic composition alone may not allow definitive determination of biotic vs. abiotic gas origin. Using our terrestrial vs. martian analysis as guide to future Mars exploration we propose that direct methane and ethane gas detection and isotopic measurements on the ground over serpentinized/serpentinizing rocks should be considered in developing future strategies for unraveling the source and origin of methane on Mars.