While exploring the solar system, we’ve found evidence of volcanic activity on numerous planets and moons. However, Earth remains the only place in the solar system we know for certain is geologically active. Scientists have wondered if Venus might be active as well, but it’s hard to know with its soupy, acidic atmosphere. A new simulation of Venus suggests that the planet does indeed have active volcanoes hiding under all those clouds.
Venus is generally considered Earth’s “sister planet,” but that association is based only on its size and density. Both planets are inside the potentially habitable zone of the sun, but the surfaces couldn’t be more different. While Earth has a pleasant oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere and liquid water, Venus has an ultra-dense carbon dioxide atmosphere with clouds of sulfuric acid. The few space probes that have landed on Venus only operated for a short time before succumbing to the extreme conditions.
Most of what we know about Venus comes from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft, which used radar to map the surface. A decade later, in the 2000s, the ESA continued that work with Venus Express. That mission measured infrared light coming from the night side of the planet to determine its composition. The new study from the USRA’s Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) doesn’t have any new data, but it draws new conclusions based on what we already know from those missions.
From the Venus exploration missions, scientists know the planet has features like volcanoes and lava flows. However, the radar and infrared data doesn’t tell us if those are active. The LPI team created a simulation of Venus’ atmosphere that focused on how lava flows would change over time, and how that changes the interpretation of Magellan and Venus Express data.
The team found that lava flows on Mars would change rapidly after cooling. Olivine, which is a common basalt rock, would not remain exposed to the atmosphere for long. In a matter of weeks, magnetite and hematite deposits would completely cover the olivine. The change in mineralogy would be total in a matter of years, but that’s not what Venus Express saw on the surface. That suggests there are active volcanoes on Venus creating new lava flows free of magnetite and hematite.
This study gives other scientists something to look for, but it doesn’t pinpoint where we might look for active volcanoes. The next missions that might be able to spot active geology on Venus are the Indian Shukrayaan-1 orbiter and Russia’s Venera-D spacecraft. They will launch in 2023 and 2026, respectively.
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