Mars is losing water faster than previously thought – particularly during the red planet’s warm and stormy seasons
- Water is being split into into hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the atmosphere
- These atoms are then able to escape into space due to the lower gravity on Mars
- French researchers found even when there are clouds present atoms escape
Mars is losing water faster than previously thought – particularly during the red planet’s warm and stormy seasons, researchers claim.
The Red Planet is gradually losing water in its upper atmosphere as sunlight and chemistry split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
These atoms are then able to use thermal energy from the sun to escape the weak Martian gravity and leave the atmosphere.
Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) scientists say there is a large reservoir of water vapour in the Martian atmosphere, coming from lower ground.
Franck Montmessin from the French team said water vapour is accumulating in large quantities at an altitude of over 50 miles in the Martian atmosphere.
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When the sun lights up the large reservoirs of ice at the poles, water vapor is released into the atmosphere. The sunlight energy then splits off the hydrogen and oxygen atoms which can then escape the lower gravity on Mars to go into space
‘Measurements showed that large atmospheric pockets are even in a state of supersaturation, with the atmosphere containing 10 to 100 times more water vapour than its temperature should theoretically allow’, he said.
They found that with these higher rates the water would be more likely to escape during certain seasons than others.
In particular it happens during stormy seasons and can escape from the atmosphere even when there are clouds present – something previously unknown.
When the sun lights up the large reservoirs of ice at the poles, water vapor is released into the atmosphere, Montmessin said.
Water molecules are then transported by winds towards higher and colder altitudes where they form into clouds in the presence of dust particles.
‘The atmosphere is thus regularly supersaturated in water vapor, which allows even more water to reach the upper atmosphere, where the sun’s UV rays disassociate them into atoms.’
The research paper used data from the European Space Agency and Roscosmos ExoMars Mission Trace Gas Orbiter probe
The discovery of the increased presence of water vapor at very high altitude suggests that a greater number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms are able to escape.
This is ‘amplifying the loss of Martian water over the long term’, Montmessin said.
‘Mars once harbored an active hydrological cycle, as demonstrated by geological features on its surface, but it no longer holds the quantity of water required to produce such geological imprints.
‘Water in the atmosphere is a negligible component of the planet’s total water inventory, but nevertheless regulates the dissipation of water over time.’
The research paper used data from the European Space Agency and Roscosmos ExoMars Mission Trace Gas Orbiter probe.
The findings have been published in the journal Science.
WHAT EVIDENCE DO SCIENTISTS HAVE FOR LIFE ON MARS?
The search for life on other planets has captivated mankind for decades.
But the reality could be a little less like the Hollywood blockbusters, scientists have revealed.
They say if there was life on the red planet, it probably will present itself as fossilized bacteria – and have proposed a new way to look for it.
Here are the most promising signs of life so far –
When looking for life on Mars, experts agree that water is key.
Although the planet is now rocky and barren with water locked up in polar ice caps there could have been water in the past.
In 2000, scientists first spotted evidence for the existence of water on Mars.
The Nasa Mars Global Surveyor found gullies that could have been created by flowing water.
The debate is ongoing as to whether these recurring slope lineae (RSL) could have been formed from water flow.
Earth has been hit by 34 meteorites from Mars, three of which are believed to have the potential to carry evidence of past life on the planet, writes Space.com.
In 1996, experts found a meteorite in Antarctica known as ALH 84001 that contained fossilised bacteria-like formations.
However, in 2012, experts concluded that this organic material had been formed by volcanic activity without the involvement of life.
Signs of Life
The first close-ups of the planet were taken by the 1964 Mariner 4 mission.
These initial images showed that Mars has landforms that could have been formed when the climate was much wetter and therefore home to life.
In 1975, the first Viking orbiter was launched and although inconclusive it paved the way for other landers.
Many rovers, orbiters and landers have now revealed evidence of water beneath the crust and even occasional precipitation.
Earlier this year, Nasa’s Curiosity rover found potential building blocks of life in an ancient Martian lakebed.
The organic molecules preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old bedrock in Gale Crater — believed to have once contained a shallow lake the size of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee — suggest conditions back then may have been conducive to life.
Future missions to Mars plan on bringing samples back to Earth to test them more thoroughly.
In 2018, Curiosity also confirmed sharp seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere.
Experts said the methane observations provide ‘one of the most compelling’ cases for present-day life.
Curiosity’s methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years.
Seasonal peaks were detected in late summer in the northern hemisphere and late winter in the southern hemisphere.
The magnitude of these seasonal peaks – by a factor of three – was far more than scientists expected.
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