HAMPTON, Va. (Jan. 24. 2018) – Hampton University Assistant Research Professor Nicholas Heavens was born to explore the sky and beyond. His latest research is a testament to that calling. As lead author of a study reported this week in Nature Astronomy, Heaven and a host of collaborators with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) suggest that planet-wide dust storms have played and are playing a significant role in the water loss on Mars.
The study compiled more than a decade worth of imaging data from observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to investigate the composition of the red planets dust storms, storms so large they can actually linger for months. During dust storms in 2006 and 2007, water vapors were found at unusually high altitudes in the atmosphere.
"We found there's an increase in water vapor in the middle atmosphere in connection with dust storms," Heavens said. "Water vapor is carried up with the same air mass rising with the dust."
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter detected an escape of hydrogen 30 to 60 miles up in Mars‘ thin atmospher. The idea of Mars losing water isn’t new to scientists, but it is the rapid rate of water loss that surprised them. Heaven said the planet lost 95 percent of its original water content, possibly through dust storms, changing what may have been a moist, warm Mars into what we know today as arid and barren.
“The expectation was that the hydrogen escaping Mars was caused by a chemical reaction,” Heaven said.
However, Heaven’s findings suggest that water could have floated to high altitudes in dust storms and solar energy – sunlight -- efficiently atomized the water into hydrogen and oxygen. If that continues, Mars will eventually lose all of its water.
Most planets have some concentration of water, but to sustain life, water is essential. It’s also the reason why scientists are interested in Mars. For Heaven, his fascination with the red planet started at the age of 10 after reading an article in Life magazine that laid then-President George W. Bush’s vision for space exploration.
“That sounded fascinating to me and Mars hasn’t left my mind since,” Heaven said. “These days I have a more realistic approach to Mars. I study it to enable people or robots to someday land there and explore the planet safely.”
Heaven’s desire to someday see life roam the red planet is why he is not as thrilled as some Mars experts to see a dust storm grow so big it darkens skies around the entire planet.
"It would be great to have a global dust storm we could observe with all the assets now at Mars, and that could happen this year," said David Kass of the JPL. He is co-author of the new report and deputy principal investigator for the instrument that is the main source of data for it, MRO's Mars Climate Sounder.