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Scientists finally find out why Earth's 'twin planet' lost all of its water and became a scorching desert

Researchers say Venus has 100,000 times less water than Earth even though both planets have the same size, but it wasn't the same billion years ago.

Scientists finally find out why Earth's 'twin planet' lost all of its water and became a scorching desert
Cover Image Source: Global view of Venus, taken by Magellan space probe. | Location: Venus. (Photo by CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Unlike Earth, where we have an abundance of water, its neighbor Venus is just a dust bowl. But the planet was not always in this state. Billions of years ago, Venus too was springing with oceans, pools, and rivulets of water. However, over time, the water began evaporating and soon enough, the planet’s surface was completely parched. Now, its surface is a hot-baked sandpaper unable to support human life. Unfurling how this happened, some researchers have rolled out a study they call “the water story on Venus.”

Representative Image Source: Pexels | johan de beer
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Johan De Beer

For the first time, a team of scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder has revealed how the wellspring of water on Venus dried up over time, turning it into a scorching desert. The research paper was published on May 6 in the journal Nature. “Water is really important for life,” said Eryn Cangi, a research scientist at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) and co-lead author of the study.



 

“We need to understand the conditions that support liquid water in the universe, and that may have produced the very dry state of Venus today,” Cangi added. The team used computer simulations to unfold the secret that hydrogen atoms in Venus’ atmosphere go whizzing into space through a process known as “dissociative recombination,” causing it to lose water.

Image Source: In this handout image provided by NASA, the SDO satellite captures a ultra-high definition image of the Transit of Venus across the face of the sun at on June 5, 2012 from space.  (Photo by SDO/NASA via Getty Images)
Image Source: In this handout image provided by NASA, the SDO satellite captures an ultra-high definition image of the Transit of Venus across the face of the sun on June 5, 2012, from space. (Photo by SDO/NASA via Getty Images)

At some point during its evolution, Venus’ atmosphere got clouded with molecules of carbon dioxide that triggered an intense runaway greenhouse effect. Numbers rose vigorously on the temperature scale, and the high temperature caused water to evaporate, sending plumes of vapor into space and drying up the planet.

 

The computer models that the researchers employed allowed them to treat Venus as a gigantic chemistry laboratory where they studied the reactions occurring in the planet’s atmosphere. The culprit behind evaporating water, they say, is a molecule called HCO+. As the formula suggests, the ionic molecule contains one atom of hydrogen, one of carbon, and one of oxygen.

Image Source: Lava flows from Maat Mons, a 5-mile-high volcano located on the planet Venus. | Location: Venus. (Photo by Lee Corkran/Sygma via Getty Images)
Image Source: Lava flows from Maat Mons, a 5-mile-high volcano located on the planet Venus. | Location: Venus. (Photo by Lee Corkran/Sygma via Getty Images)

They explained that HCO+ is produced constantly in the atmosphere, but individual ions don’t survive for long. Electrons in the atmosphere find these ions and recombine to split the ions in two. In the process, hydrogen atoms flit away into the solar system, robbing Venus of one of the two components of water. And on Venus, there is a proliferation of HCO+ molecules going on every second.

 

Today, Venus, also known by names like “Earth’s twin” and “Earth’s sister planet,” has significantly less water as compared to Earth, even though both planets are the same in size. Venus is even hotter than Mercury, which is closer to the Sun. “Venus has 100,000 times less water than the Earth, even though it’s basically the same size and mass,” described Michael Chaffin, co-lead author of the study and a research scientist at LASP. 



 

 

Describing it visually, Cangi said that if all water on the two planets were spread out like jam on toast, the Earth’s water layer would turn out to be 3 kilometers deep, while the Venus’ water layer would be only 3 centimeters deep, which is not even enough water to dip one’s toes. Nevertheless, Chaffin and Cangi say that they have not been able to determine the HCO+ composition in Venus’ atmosphere, given the limitations of equipment and instrumentation. But it is not long before scientists will be able to send space probes to Venus as efficiently as they send these to planets like Mars.

Image Source: NASA (DAVINCI)
Image Source: NASA (DAVINCI)

For instance, NASA's Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) mission is set to drop a spacecraft into the furnace-like atmosphere of Venus to determine its chemical composition. The craft is set to launch in 2029. Although DAVINCI won't be sufficient equipment to detect HCO+, the team hopes to discover more than what is already known about the searing hot sister planet with advanced missions like this.

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