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Venus’ Terrifying ‘Electric Wind’ Sucks Water from its Atmosphere

Jun 21, 2016 07:59 AM EDT
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Venus, the Earth's sister planet, has an electric wind so strong it can strip off all water components of a planet, scientists said.

According to NASA and researchers from the University College London, this strong electric field may have been responsible in removing waterforms in the planet.

"It's amazing and shocking," Glyn Collinson, scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and co-author of the study, said in a news release.

"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 definitely has to be on the checklist when we go looking for habitable planets around other stars."

In the study, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers discovered that Venus' electric wind is so strong it can accelerate the heavy electrically charged component of water, which is oxygen, so fast it can escape the planet's gravity.

When water molecules rise into the upper atmosphere, light from the sun breaks the water into hydrogen ions that are fast and can escape easily, and heavier oxygen ions that are carried away by the electric field, scientists said.

In an interview with The Daily Mail, Collinson said that in terms of power, the electric wind is about a Megawatt, which can be as powerful as a single wind turbine or a Bugatti Veyron.

"In terms of strength, it's 10V, which is about as strong as the rectangular battery in your smoke detector," Collison said.

"But that's all it takes to strip oxygen off of a planet into space. The main scientific result is its surprising strength."

According to the researchers, over 100 metric tons per year escapes from Venus through this electric wind, significant over billions of years.

Venus is very similar with Earth in terms of size and gravity, and evidence suggests the planet once had oceans that boiled away to steam long ago at surface temperatures of about 860 degrees Fahrenheit.

But Venus' thick atmosphere, which is around 100 times the pressure of Earth's, has 10,000 to 100,000 times less water than the Earth's atmosphere, pointing to the possibility that this electric wind removed all the steam.

Initially, scientists thought solar winds were responsible in eroding oxygen and water from Venus' upper atmosphere.

Venus' electric wind was discovered using the NASA-SwRI-UCL electron  spectrometer, which is part of a larger instrument called ASPERA-4 aboard the ESA Venus Express.

Scientists noticed a change in the speed of electrons flowing out of the upper atmosphere as they were being tugged on by Venus' potent electric field. The research team found that the field was five times more powerful than in Earth.

According to the scientists, understanding the role played by a planet's electric winds will help astronomers estimate the size and location of habitable zones around other stars.

"Even a weak electric wind could still play a role in water and atmospheric loss at any planet," Alex Glocer of NASA Goddard and co-author of the study said. "It could act like a conveyor belt, moving ions higher in the ionosphere where other effects from the solar wind could carry them away."

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