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Rolf-Peter Kudritzki
Director, Institute for Astronomy

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From the Director

Dear Friends of the Institute for Astronomy,

Modern astronomy is full of stunning surprises. Recently, a team of NASA and university scientists who used two telescopes on Mauna Kea announced that they had conclusively detected the gas methane in the atmosphere of Mars. This is a most exciting discovery because it indicates that Mars is either biologically or geologically active. What makes it even more exciting for me is that the team used the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), a national telescope for solar system research that is managed and operated by the IfA. The other telescope used for this pioneering study is W. M. Keck Telescope, the most powerful telescope on this planet.

Methane, four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom (CH4), is the main component of natural gas on Earth. It is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere by sunlight and other processes, so finding methane means that it is being created or released from deep within Mars now.

Astrobiologists are most interested in this discovery because organisms release much of the methane in Earth's atmosphere as they digest nutrients. On Earth, scientists have found microorganisms living more than a mile underground in a place where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen and oxygen. On Mars, microorganisms may have found similar conditions beneath the surface of the planet.

It is also possible a geologic process produced the Martian methane, either now or long ago. On Earth, the conversion of iron oxide into minerals creates methane, and on Mars this process could result from water, carbon dioxide, and the planet's internal heat. Although there is no evidence of active volcanism on Mars today, ancient methane trapped in ice cages called clathrates might be released now.

It will take future missions, like NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, to determine the origin of the Martian methane. But this recent discovery reminds us of the importance of ground-based astronomy to space missions. As my colleague and IRTF division chief, Alan Tokunaga, points out, "This is an excellent example of why the IRTF is funded by NASA for mission support. The discovery of methane in the atmosphere of Mars was unexpected and is generating tremendous interest in the Mars exploration program. I'm certain this will have a major impact on future missions to Mars."

Annual Manoa Open House Sunday, April 5

11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free admission and parking.

  • Activities for all ages
  • Lectures about new discoveries
  • Lab tours & demonstrations




Discovering the Early Monsters of the Universe
Haumea: The Strangest Icy Rock at the Edge of the Solar System
Galileo and the 400th Anniversary of the Telescope

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Wednesday, March 18, Frontiers of Astronomy Community Lecture, "The New Solar System," David Jewitt, IfA, UH Manoa Art Building auditorium (Room 132), 7:30 p.m. Free.

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