How Venus Is Losing Its Water

A radar map of Venus's northern hemisphere, produced by the Magellan spacecraft.

Since Venus formed at the same time as Earth and is similar in size, scientists believe it once had the same amount of water our planet does. Today, hellish Venus has hardly any water, a fact scientists have struggled to explain completely. Most of its water was lost long ago, as incoming particles from the solar wind stripped water from the upper atmosphere; unlike Earth, Venus doesn’t enjoy the protection of a magnetic field.

But that mechanism doesn’t explain just how arid Venus is now. A new study instead suggests that Venus’s water loss is ongoing, driven by simple chemical reactions. The team found that molecules of HCO+ (an ion made from one hydrogen, one carbon, and one oxygen atom) could mix with any remaining water to form a positively-charged molecule. Due to that charge, the chemical easily attracts loose electrons. Once combined, however, the resulting molecule is too energetic and breaks apart; when it does so, it releases highly-energetic hydrogen, which escapes the atmosphere into space. Without that hydrogen, water molecules can’t reform. This process of dissociative recombination could explain why the rest of Venus’s water has disappeared.

Science missions that have flown to Venus so far haven’t been equipped to measure HCO+, and the authors recommend this as a priority for future missions to our neighbor. With that data, we could confirm or disprove this mechanism for Venusian water loss. (Image credit: NASA; research credit: M. Chaffin et al.; via Gizmodo)

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