Electric Wind Can Wipe Out Oceans, Study Finds

     (CN) — Electric wind on Venus may have wiped out the planet’s oceans by removing the components of water from its atmosphere, a recent study found.
     Researchers from NASA and the University College London discovered that Venus’ electric field is strong enough to accelerate heavily charged hydrogen-oxygen ions — atoms or molecules that have a positive or negative charge due to gaining or losing electrons.
     Astronomers thought solar wind strips Venus of its water and oxygen, but the new evidence might provide insight into how the planet gradually became uninhabitable.
     “We never dreamt an electric wind could be so powerful that it can suck oxygen right out of an atmosphere into space. This is something that has to be on the checklist when we go looking for habitable planets around other stars,” lead author Glyn Collinson said in a statement.
     The team’s findings were published Monday in the journal Geographic Research Letters.
     As water molecules rise into Venus’ upper atmosphere, sunlight breaks the molecules into hydrogen ions that quickly escape, while the electric field carries away the heavier oxygen ions, according to the study.
     “We don’t really know why it is so much stronger at Venus than Earth,” Collinson said. “But, we think it might have something to do with Venus being closer to the sun, and the ultraviolet sunlight being twice as bright. It’s a challenging thing to measure and even at Earth to date all we have are upper limits on how strong it might be.”
     While Venus is the most similar planet to Earth in the Solar System in terms of size and gravity, its surface temperature is roughly 860 degrees Fahrenheit, which boiled the planet’s oceans over time.
     Venus’ atmosphere contains about 10,000 to 100,000 times less water than Earth’s atmosphere, which may highlight the effects of electric wind on the steam boiled along the Evening Star.
     “We found that electric wind, which people thought was just one small cog in a big machine, is in fact this big monster that’s capable of sucking the water from Venus by itself,” Collinson said.
     Researchers noticed that electrons were not escaping Venus’ atmosphere at their expected speeds due to the pull of the planet’s electric field.
     The differences between the expected speeds and the speeds observed enabled the scientists to calculate the field’s strength, finding that it’s roughly five times stronger than Earth’s electric field and much stronger than expected.
     “The new result here shows that the electric field powering this escape is surprisingly strong at Venus compared to the other objects,” study co-author Andrew Coates said. “This [discovery] will help us understand how this universal process works.”
     NASA’s MAVEN mission is seeking to determine why Mars has lost much of its atmosphere and oceans, which may also be tied to the effects of electric wind.
     “We are actively hunting for Mars’ electric wind with MAVEN’s full arsenal of scientific instruments,” Collinson said. “MAVEN is a robotic detective on this four-billion-year-old mystery of where the atmosphere and oceans went, and the electric wind has long been a prime suspect.”
     Photo courtesy of NASA/Conceptual Image Lab.
     Photo caption: A new study shows that electric fields around Venus helped strip the planet’s atmosphere of the components needed to make water.

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