Science/Tech

How Mars Lost Its Water: Are Monster Dust Storms To Blame?

In 2018, NASA watched its Opportunity rover die slowly as a huge dust storm covered the surface of Mars and blocked sunlight, preventing the space vehicle from recharging until it drained its power. Now, scientists suggest such storms potentially brought greater damage to the red planet in the past. 

NASA declared Opportunity dead in February, many years after it started to explore Mars in 2004. After the death of Oppy, the space agency observed the dust storm continued until it covered Mars like a global monster, Space.com reported.

NASA said it was not the first time such planet-wide storms happened on Mars. The agency recorded similar dust storms in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007. 

With its size and global impact, some scientists believe the monster dust storms caused Mars to lose its water and become extremely dry and dusty. 

Mars In The Past

NASA suggested that the red planet had thick atmosphere and liquid water flowing around it billions of years ago. Scientists believed that nearly 20 percent of ancient Mars was covered with deep ocean.

The presence of water was backed by evidence provided by Opportunity, Spirit and the new rover Curiosity. Mars’ surface and atmosphere eventually changed after it lost its global magnetic field about four billion years ago. 

This protective barrier used to prevent solar particles from damaging most of the planet's atmosphere. Without the magnetic field, Mars lost the ability to support liquid water. 

New research, published in the journal Nature, suggests that global dust storms contributed to Mars’ transition from a water-filled planet into Earth’s dry and dusty neighbor. 

Using data from the European-Russian ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, researchers observed the movement of water vapor in Mars' atmosphere before and after the 2018 dust storm. 

The dust storms brought water molecules much higher into the Martian sky, too high from the ground that solar radiation broke water molecules easily. 

"When you bring water to higher parts of the atmosphere, it gets blown away so much easier," study co-author Geronimo Villanueva, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

The agency is trying to understand Mars dust storms to see how such events affect the planet's climate. NASA also hopes to improve future rovers since such storms pose a threat to solar-powered rovers and landers, like what happened to Opportunity.

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