A group of scientists has determined that regional dust storms on Mars play an important role in the loss of water from the red planet, according to an article published this Monday in the magazine Nature Astronomy.
By combining observations from three international space probes, the researchers found that dust storms heat up the higher altitudes of the cold Martian atmosphere, preventing water vapor from freezing as usual and causing it to rise higher. .
In the upper reaches of Mars, where the atmosphere is not very dense, water molecules are vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation, which breaks them down into their lighter components of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is easily lost to space, while oxygen leaves the planet or returns to the surface.
“All you have to do to permanently lose water is lose a hydrogen atom, because then hydrogen and oxygen cannot recombine in water “, explained Michael Chaffin, a researcher at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and lead author of the research. “When you have lost a hydrogen atom, you have definitely lost a water molecule,” he summarized.
For a long time, the scientific community believed that Mars, which was once hot and humid like Earth, lost most of its water mainly due to this process, but had not focused its attention on the significant impact of dust storms. regional, which occur almost every summer in the southern hemisphere of the planet.
“Go back in time”
Thus, recent research concluded that the red planet loses twice as much water during a regional storm as during a summer season in the southern hemisphere – when Mars is closer to the Sun – without regional storms.
“This document helps us practically go back in time and say ‘okay, now we have another way of losing water that will help us relate this little water that we have today on Mars with the huge amount of water that we had in the past’“said Gerónimo Villanueva, a martian water expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and a co-author of the study.
Billions of years ago, Mars had much more water than it does today. What remains on the planet is frozen at the poles or trapped under the crust. Some scientists believe that this remnant of water could, if melted, fill a global ocean up to 30 meters deep.
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