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Venus's Missing Water Mystery: New Discovery Unveils Clues



  May 22, 2024

Venus's Missing Water Mystery: New Discovery Unveils Clues


 
More than four billion years ago, Venus had enough water to cover its surface with an ocean 3 km deep. Today, the planet only has enough for an ocean 3 cm deep. Scientists have been able to account for much of the water Venus lost over time, but not all of it. A recent study by a team of U.S. scientists may have made a crucial breakthrough in solving this mystery.

The Water Loss Puzzle

Venus is currently 100,000 times drier than Earth, an anomaly that demands an explanation. Is Venus abnormally dry, or is Earth unusually wet? The implications for planetary habitability are significant. Scientists have discovered that there are two main reasons for Venus’s drastic water loss:

1. Hellish Atmosphere: Venus's atmosphere, rich in carbon dioxide, creates a strong greenhouse effect. The planet’s surface temperature is a scorching 450 degrees Celsius, hotter than the boiling point of water, meaning water can only exist as vapor.

2. Proximity to the Sun: Venus’s closeness to the Sun means intense heat and ultraviolet radiation, which break down water molecules in the upper atmosphere (ionosphere) into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen escapes into space, while the oxygen may recombine or escape more slowly.

The Role of the Formyl Cation (HCO+)

The team’s research, published in Nature, highlights the significance of the formyl cation (HCO+), a positively charged molecule. Dr. Eryn Cangi and her colleagues focused on hydrogen atoms escaping from Venus into space, which reduces water levels because fewer hydrogen atoms are available to combine with oxygen to form water.

Their models showed that a specific chemical reaction involving HCO+ — known as dissociative recombination (DR) — occurs in bulk at about 125 km above Venus’s surface. This reaction splits HCO+ into carbon monoxide (CO) and a hydrogen atom, which then escapes into space. The researchers found that this process could have doubled the rate at which Venus lost water.

Implications and Future Research

The study suggests that if Venus had oceans in the past, they could have lasted longer than previously thought because the faster rate of hydrogen escape means more water could have been lost in the same amount of time. The amount of water on Venus has remained roughly the same for nearly 2 billion years, as the non-thermal HCO+ DR process would have continued indefinitely, draining the water. Comet impacts could be a potential way for Venus to have replenished its water.

However, there is no direct proof yet that HCO+ ions exist in Venus’s atmosphere. Past space missions did not specifically search for HCO+ ions, focusing instead on other atmospheric chemical reactions. Future missions dedicated to probing Venus's upper atmosphere, similar to NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars, could provide the needed evidence.

Conclusion

Understanding whether Venus is abnormally dry or if Earth is unusually wet has significant implications for planetary habitability. This research opens new avenues for exploring the history of water on Venus and improving our knowledge of planetary atmospheres. As scientists continue to investigate, they hope to uncover more about the enigmatic history of our neighboring planet.



SRIRAM’s


 


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