Canadian science instruments are off to Mars in 2016 to search for methane -- that gas which produces an odd smell from cows and swamps on Earth. Scientists hope enough methane in Mars' atmosphere could point to signs of life.

The Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer, or MATMOS, will check out the atmosphere of Mars for any sources of methane. Since methane is often a part of biological processes, it's considered a potential indicator of life.

MATMOS will ride aboard the ExoMars mission. Both MATMOS and ExoMars are joint initiatives of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Full details were announced on Monday.

Marker for life

Methane was first discovered on Mars in 2003 in a larger quantity than scientists thought was possible, which made them think it was a "possible biomarker" for signs of life, the CSA stated.

"The key is MATMOS' very high sensitivity," stated Victoria Hipkin, a senior planetary scientist at the CSA who is also the chief co-investigator for the mission.

"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."

Rovers also a part of agency's push to Mars

In a number of requests for proposals issued for private contractors in recent months, the CSA has indicated a burgeoning interest in Mars exploration.

In May, the agency proposed a $6-million Mars Exploration Science Rover prototype. It would be used as a testbed for future missions that roam the Red Planet, much like NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers that have been crawling the surface for the past six and a half years.

The CSA received $110 million in stimulus funding from the federal government in 2009, and targeted most of the funds for next-generation Canadarms and "exploration surface mobility", including three rovers.

Two of the rovers would work on the moon, and the single Mars rover could possibly work in a "sample return" mission that would send a spacecraft to Mars and back to Earth to bring some of the soil back to scientists for further examination.

History of cancelled missions

However, the road to Mars has not been easy for Canadians.

In 2001, then-CSA president Marc Garneau presided over an agency-supported space exploration workshop and proposed a $500-million push to the Red Planet.

His cry, "Allons-y! Let's go to Mars!" culminated in a rover for the European Space Agency. However, the mission was cancelled in 2006 when then-industry minister Maxime Bernier denied Garneau's request for federal support, saying the federal government had not decided its future priorities in space.

Another Canadian Mars mission, called the Northern Light, was supposed to get going in 2007. A lack of funding has pushed the mission back until at least 2012.

Experience from SCISAT

In more recent times, current CSA president Steve MacLean has said the agency is looking to align all of its priorities with the government's science and technology strategy.

This would likely mean that the research on Mars is being conducted in the hopes that it can be applied back to Earth.

Indeed, the CSA will use a firm's experience with the seven-year-old SCISAT -- which examines ozone depletion in Earth's atmosphere -- to build the Mars MATMOS instruments.

The CSA stated that it will use SCISAT builder ABB Bomen to build the Canadian instruments, which include a solar imager, an interferometer and a device that collects light to power the experiments.

Other Canadians working on MATMOS include researchers from Dalhousie University, the University of Toronto, York University and the University of Winnipeg.