Billions of years ago, Mars was a lush planet with a thick atmosphere, liquid water, and brimming with potential for life.
Before becoming a dry, arid planet, the Red Planet used to be a lot like Earth with plenty of oceans on the surface.
What Happened To Mars' Water?
Mars became a different planet when it lost its global magnetic field 4 billion years ago. Without this protective shield, the planet was exposed to solar radiation and eventually became unable to support liquid water on the surface.
In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers reveal that the planet's penchant for producing massive dust storms helped liquid water disappear from its surface.
"The global dust storm may give us an explanation," said Geronimo Villanueva, a NASA Goddard expert on Martian water.
According to Villanueva and his fellow authors on the paper, dust storms of the caliber of the 2018 storm appear to push water vapor from its regular altitude 12 miles above the ground to a higher altitude of at least 50 miles above the ground.
At its original altitude, water vapor could condense and fall back to the planet's surface as rain or snow as it does on Earth. However, at the new, higher altitude in Mars, water molecules are broken up by solar radiation, and the elements are dispersed into space.
"When you bring water to higher parts of the atmosphere, it gets blown away so much easier," pointed out Villanueva.
The new paper revealed that the scientists found evidence of the Red Planet's receding water vapor with ESA and Roscosmos' spacecraft known as the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars.
Rovers Observe Martian Dust Storms Up Close
In the summer of 2018, a planet-wide dust storm hit Mars, blocking out sunlight for weeks and permanently putting the Opportunity rover out of commission.
However, NASA points out that the monster storm has its perks: for the first time ever, humanity can take a close look at the Red Planet's dust storms with eight spacecraft either orbiting Mars or roving on its surface. With these spacecraft, scientists gain access to these massive Martian storms, collecting information on how they could have affected the landscape of ancient Mars.
Aside from discovering how dust storms influence the disappearing water of Mars, scientists were also able to determine its role in other Martian features.
For instance, it turns out that massive dust storms don't play a huge role in reshaping the sand dunes of the planet since these dunes appear to move all the time, even without strong winds.