Dust Storms Blamed For Gas Escaping Martian Atmosphere, Loss Of Water On Red Planet

New research suggests that global dust storms might be responsible for certain changes on Mars, including the escape of gas from the Martian atmosphere, and the eventual loss of water on the Red Planet’s surface.

Billions of years ago, Mars had a warmer climate and an abundance of water flowing on its surface, which is a sharp contrast to the dry and frozen state the planet is in today. For years, scientists have tried to figure out the reason behind this, and as Space.com noted, the most likely scenario hinted at solar winds drying up a good chunk of the Martian atmosphere about 4 billion years ago, thinning the air and making it impossible to support running water. But a new study published earlier this week in the journal Nature Astronomy suggests a completely different theory behind the phenomenon.

Using data collected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the researchers analyzed previously documented events, including those where water vapor increased substantially and was spotted about 30 to 60 miles (50 to 100 kilometers) high in the planet’s middle atmosphere as regional dust storms took place. According to Spaceflight Insider, this resulted in the loss of hydrogen from the top of the Martian atmosphere. But it was during Mars’ last global dust storm in 2007 when the volume of water vapor became over a hundred times more intense, while also moving to an even higher altitude.

“We found there’s an increase in water vapor in the middle atmosphere in connection with dust storms,” read a statement from Hampton University geophysicist Nicholas Heavens, lead author on the new study.

“Water vapor is carried up with the same air mass rising with the dust.”

The findings from the MRO are backed up by separate observations from the world’s leading space agencies, as NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter both observed a correlation between middle-atmosphere water volume and atmospheric hydrogen loss in the Martian atmosphere, though Space.com stressed that these findings were gathered in years where there weren’t any global dust storms on the Red Planet. And with such events being relatively rare, it’s hard to prove a similar link during years when these storms take place.

With NASA expecting a new dust storm season to kick off this summer and last until early next year, study co-author and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist David Kass hopes that the agency can leverage the “assets” it has, such as the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft, to observe a global dust storm and learn more about the role such storms play in the Martian atmosphere.

While the prospect of a global dust storm taking place sometime this year or next sounds exciting for those researching the gas escape phenomenon on Mars, these events could adversely affect some of NASA’s other Mars-based projects. For the Opportunity rover, which runs on solar power, that would mean shutting down during a dust storm. Likewise, NASA might also have to change parameters for the safe landing of the InSight lander in the event of a dust storm, as it is expected to launch from Earth in May and touch down on Mars in November.

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