Sandstorms Could Cause Water Loss on Mars

Dust occupies an important place in Mars missions. Before astronauts land on the planet, NASA has to understand how often dust particles fill the atmosphere and how it will affect the astronauts who will land.

A dust storm on Mars in the summer of 2018 blocked the Sun for weeks, causing the Opportunity rover to be out of service. At the same time, this sandstorm presented an unprecedented opportunity. Eight spacecraft on the surface of Mars watched a sandstorm for the first time.

Scientists around the world are still examining the data. But initial reports show how massive sandstorms affected the planet’s ancient water, wind, climate and future weather.

Sandstorms are common on Mars. In fact, the first sandstorm on the red planet was captured by the Mariner 9 spacecraft in 1971. Since then, massive sandstorms have been observed twice in 1997, in 1982, 1994, 2001, 2007 and 2018.

Scientists have ample evidence that there were rivers, lakes and even oceans on Mars billions of years ago. Drying riverbeds, ancient coastlines, and the planet’s salty surface are the best evidence that water once existed on the planet. So, how and why did all this water disappear? Geronimo Villanueva, NASA’s Mars water expert, thinks global sandstorms may provide an answer to that question.

Villanueva and colleagues worked at ESA and Roscosmos to prove that powerful global sandstorms lift water vapor to higher altitudes (80 km) than it should (20 km). NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter rover observed a similar phenomenon in 2007.

Global sandstorms may have interfered with the planet’s water cycle, preventing H2O from condensing and falling back to the surface. H2O falls back to the surface as rain and snow on Earth, perhaps the same process billions of years ago on Mars.

At high altitudes, where the Martian atmosphere is particularly sparse, solar radiation can easily penetrate water molecules and blow their constituents out into space. Villanueva and her colleagues said in their research, published April 10 in the journal Nature, they found evidence of rising water vapor using the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.

Wind whirlwinds are a very common natural phenomenon on Mars and are also very useful in cleaning up the dust accumulated in solar-powered spacecraft. Scott Guzewich, one of NASA’s atmospheric scientists, says understanding the impact of global sandstorms on wind tornadoes is crucial for future Mars missions.

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