Sifting through decades of spacecraft data, the researchers found clear signs of recent volcanic activity on Venus. The results published in the journal Sciencesrevealing not only that the planet’s surface is currently a turbulent place, but offering insight into its geological past and future.
By all accounts, Venus is hell: crushing pressures, a toxic atmosphere, and surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead. It’s like a scene lifted straight from a Dante scene Big fire.
says “my favorite planet” Robert HerrickPlanetary scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Despite all the hostility, Venus – our closest planetary neighbor – is very similar to Earth. So much so that Herrick calls it our “true brother” in the solar system. He says the similarity is “driven by what’s going on inside them”.
“Aside from Earth,” Herrick says, “it’s the only planet with true mountain ranges and a great variety of volcanic features.” These features include lava fields, channels carved by molten rock, and hundreds, if not thousands of volcanoes.
So Venus is clearly volcanically active, which gives it a (geologically speaking) youthful appearance. But it is not clear exactly how active it is.
“It still means that the time period between eruptions could be months, years, or tens of thousands of years,” says Herrick.
So he set out to try to narrow that window of time by looking for evidence Recently volcanic activity. He turned to surface radar images collected by the Magellan spacecraft in the early 1990s.
“Thirty years ago,” he says, “it would have been pointless to pan and zoom in and out and flip back and forth between different global mosaics.” But computer hardware and software had improved greatly, and thus Herrick was able to sift through the photographs.
“It’s a needle in a haystack hunt with no guarantee of a needle,” he admits.
Herrick focused his research on the highest volcano on Venus called Maat Mons, named after the ancient Egyptian goddess of truth and justice. And after two months of searching an area the size of Australia, he found something.
It’s visible in two side-by-side black-and-white images taken eight months apart from the same spot on the volcano’s north side. Each is about 15 or 20 miles wide. Herrick points to a hole towards the bottom. It’s a vent – the area where a volcano erupts, dumping out its lava, ash and rock. But the shape of that hole is different between the two pictures.
“The outline has changed, the thing has really become bigger, and it also looks sketchy,” he says. That is, in just eight months in 1991 (the same year President George HW Bush declared victory over Iraq and Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice), Herrick speculates that the volcano erupted, forming a lava lake within the vent.
“Of course, I could have been very lucky and seen the only thing that’s happened in the last million years on Venus,” Herrick says. “But I think a reasonable explanation would be that Venus is relatively Earth-like in frequency of volcanic eruptions,” following the likes of Hawaii and Iceland.
Unlike Earth, Venus does not have plate tectonics. So researchers have been trying to figure out how the planet has evolved geologically over the past four and a half billion years and where it might be headed. Herrick and colleague Scott Hensley I hope their findings help do exactly that.
“It’s good to have visual confirmation of volcanic activity on Venus,” he says. Clara Souza Silva, a quantitative astrophysicist at Bard College who was not involved in the research. “But given that this was something we expected, it is not surprising that this paper was published.”
However, Sousa-Silva says that this confirmation of activity on the surface of Venus helps us better understand what to expect on Venus. atmospheres.
“A planet that has a lot of volcanic activity,” she says, “has access to these extreme pressures and temperatures below the surface that can produce molecules that are really unusual and otherwise difficult to make.”
The planet Mars has recently been brought to the attention of NASA (and the public). The space agency has landed five vehicles on the red planet’s dusty surface since 1997.
But Herrick says Earth’s resemblance to Mars is rather superficial, confined largely to superficial features like sand blowing around, desert landscapes, and signs of what may once have been lakes and rivers.
But the winds of interest have changed. “Maybe it’s something like bell bottoms,” Herrick says with a chuckle.
This is because NASA currently has two missions to Venus in the works, which will now be informed by Herrick’s findings. “We don’t just think it’s an active planet,” he says. “We know it’s an active planet — for now.”
Herrick is working with NASA to develop an instrument for those upcoming missions to monitor volcanic activity on Venus. He is now quite confident that the seismometer will record something as soon as it is published – as long as it can survive on the infernal planet long enough to make its measurements.
“Devoted student. Bacon advocate. Beer scholar. Troublemaker. Falls down a lot. Typical coffee enthusiast.”