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Scientists finally solved the mystery of why Venus has almost no water

Scientists from University of Colorado Boulder have solved a key mystery surrounding Venus' extreme dryness
Scientists from University of Colorado Boulder have solved a key mystery surrounding Venus' extreme dryness. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) have solved a key mystery surrounding Venus' extreme dryness. Their research, published in Nature, sheds light on a previously overlooked atmospheric process that appears to be steadily stripping the planet of water.

The new findings address a critical gap in our understanding of Venus' water history. Using sophisticated computer simulations, the team discovered a process called "dissociative recombination" significantly accelerating the escape of hydrogen atoms from the Venusian atmosphere. This translates to a water loss rate roughly double previous estimates.


The implications of this research extend beyond Venus itself. Understanding how planets retain or lose water is crucial for characterizing exoplanets and the potential for life beyond Earth.

"Water is the cornerstone of life as we know it," explains Eryn Cangi, a LASP research scientist and co-lead author of the study. "To understand the conditions that favor liquid water on other planets, and potentially explain Venus' current arid state, we need to delve deeper into the factors influencing water distribution across the cosmos."

The stark contrast between Earth and Venus is particularly striking. Earth boasts a global water layer averaging 3 kilometers deep, while Venus possesses a mere 3 centimeters of water vapor trapped in its atmosphere – not even enough to dampen your toes.


"Venus holds a staggering 100,000 times less water than Earth, despite being remarkably similar in size and mass," highlights Michael Chaffin, co-lead author and LASP researcher.

The research team meticulously modeled Venus' atmosphere as a vast chemical laboratory, simulating the intricate reactions occurring within its swirling layers. Their focus centered on a specific molecule – HCO+, an ion composed of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen – prevalent in the upper atmosphere. This molecule, according to the study, may be the culprit behind Venus' vanishing water.


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Cangi emphasizes the significance of these findings in unraveling the divergent evolutionary paths of Earth and Venus, which were likely very similar billions of years ago.

"Our goal is to pinpoint the subtle differences that steered these planets towards such vastly different destinies," says Cangi, who recently earned her doctorate in astrophysical and planetary sciences at CU Boulder.


A Desiccating Past

Venus' current barren state is a far cry from its potential watery past. Scientists theorize that during its formation, Venus may have harbored water reserves comparable to Earth's. However, a catastrophic event intervened. A runaway greenhouse effect, fueled by a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere, transformed Venus into the hottest planet in our solar system, with surface temperatures exceeding 900 degrees Fahrenheit. This intense heat vaporized all of Venus' water, with most escaping into space.

However, this ancient evaporation doesn't fully explain the planet's current extreme dryness. The new study suggests an ongoing process steadily depleting Venus' remaining water.

"Imagine spilling water from a bottle," explains Chaffin. "While some droplets might cling to the sides, the majority would be gone. On Venus, it seems almost all the remaining 'droplets' have vanished as well."


HCO+ – The Culprit?

Chaffin and Cangi's research points towards HCO+ as the culprit behind this ongoing water loss. In planetary upper atmospheres, water readily interacts with carbon dioxide to form this molecule. Their previous work suggests HCO+ may have played a similar role in depleting water on Mars.

The process works like this: HCO+ is constantly produced in the atmosphere, but individual ions have a short lifespan. Electrons in the environment readily recombine with these ions, splitting them apart. This process releases hydrogen atoms, some of which achieve escape velocity and vanish altogether, effectively robbing Venus of a critical component for water formation.

The team's simulations suggest that significantly higher levels of HCO+ than previously expected are necessary to explain Venus' extreme dryness. However, there's a crucial caveat – scientists haven't directly observed HCO+ in Venus' atmosphere.


The Cause of the Blind Spot

Chaffin and Cangi attribute the lack of HCO+ detection to limitations in past observation instruments. Unlike Mars, which has been extensively explored by numerous missions in recent decades, Venus has received far less scientific attention. Additionally, none of these missions possessed the necessary instrumentation to detect HCO+.

"One of the most surprising outcomes of this study is the prediction that HCO+ should actually be one of the most abundant ions in the Venusian atmosphere," says Chaffin.


A New Era of Venusian Exploration

Fortunately, the tide is turning for Venusian exploration. Missions like NASA's Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) mission, planned for launch later this decade, aim to send probes directly through the Venusian atmosphere, collecting data all the way down to the surface.

Unfortunately, DAVINCI won't be equipped to detect HCO+, but it paves the way for future missions that could hold the key to unlocking the remaining mysteries surrounding water on Venus.

"Venus exploration has been lagging behind Martian exploration for far too long," acknowledges Cangi. "However, there's a surge in interest, with upcoming missions leveraging decades of accumulated knowledge to investigate the extreme environments of Venusian atmosphere, its evolution, and potential for past or present habitability."


The study's findings highlight the importance of HCO+ as a potential water loss mechanism on Venus and other planets. Future missions with advanced spectroscopic instruments designed to detect HCO+ are crucial for validating the team's theoretical predictions and solidifying our understanding of this critical process.

The research also underscores the need for a renewed focus on Venus. Unveiling the secrets locked away in its atmosphere is essential for piecing together the evolutionary puzzle of our solar system's terrestrial planets and informing the search for habitable exoplanets beyond.

This research lays the groundwork for a new chapter in Venusian exploration, promising to revolutionize our understanding of this enigmatic and surprisingly Earth-like world.


With advanced missions on the horizon, the veil shrouding Venus' past and potential for harboring water may soon be lifted.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


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