Scientists Spot Volcanic Activity on Venus in Radar Images

Venus shares a lot of features with Earth, including active volcanoes.

Despite the clouds of sulfuric acid and crushing pressure, Venus is more like Earth than any other planet in the solar system. It has true mountain ranges, similar gravity, and volcanic activity. Even with hundreds of confirmed volcanoes on the surface, scientists aren’t certain if Venus has eruptions as often as Earth. Evidence is mounting that it does, thanks in part to a new analysis of decades-old radar data showing a sizeable eruption at one of the planet’s largest volcanoes.

Robert Herrick, a planetary scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has a soft spot for Venus, which he describes as his favorite planet. Indeed, Mars has taken the spotlight among planetary scientists for the last quarter century, as NASA and other space agencies succeed in landing robotic explorers on the dusty world. Unlike Venus, Mars doesn’t have a crushing, ultra-hot atmosphere that annihilates landers, but it’s only superficially Earth-like, according to Herrick.

NASA has two upcoming Venus missions, and investigating the planet’s geological activity is high on the list of objectives. Herrick is working with the agency to develop an instrument for monitoring volcanic activity. In preparation for this, Herrick took a closer look at radar data from the Magellan spacecraft, which scanned Venus in the early 1990s. In the intervening years, computer hardware has come a long way, making it possible to shuffle through the radar images more efficiently. So, Herrick went looking for evidence of volcanic activity.

The study focused on the area around Maat Mons, the tallest volcano on Venus, with a peak of 26,247 ft (8,000 meters) above the mean terrain. That’s just a little shorter than Mount Everest (about 29,000 feet). After months of poring over the radar data, Herrick spotted something on the volcano’s north side. Two images taken eight months apart in 1991 show a lava vent changing shape dramatically. The image above shows how the apparent vent grows in size, and there’s what appears to be surface remodeling from a lava flow.

This data suggests that eruptions on Venus follow a similar cycle as Earth — we’re not talking years or decades between major volcanic events. Venus probably has them regularly. This helps inform the design of instruments for upcoming Venus missions, plus it helps scientists better understand what to expect from the planet’s atmosphere. After detecting the probable volcanic activity on Venus, Herrick is confident the seismometer being planned for Venus will be able to quantify its volcanic activity. Provided, of course, that it can survive on the hellish surface. The missions, DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) and VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy), are expected to launch in the late 2020s.

The original article was published by Extreme Tech

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