Are there active volcanoes on Venus?

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Despite its demise last December, the ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft is still providing data, and research based on evidence collected by the fallen orbiter has found that volcanoes on the Earth’s sister planet may still be actively spewing lava.

According to Discovery News, lava flows were reported on Venus as recently as 2010. However, the new findings appear to indicate that the planet’s volcanoes remain active. Reported this week by National Geographic, the volcanoes are producing eruptions responsible for spiking temperatures to more than 1500 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the planet.

Led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and published in the May edition of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the study reported that the ESA orbiter’s Venus Monitoring Camera revealed transient bright spots that are “consistent with the extrusion of lava flows” and cause surface temperature spikes.

The correlation of these transient bright spots with the extremely young Ganiki Chasma (a group of rift zones on the surface of Venus) and their similarity to regions of rift-associated volcanism on Earth combine to provide strong evidence that they are volcanic in origin and that Venus “is currently geodynamically active” – a discovery which co-author and Brown University planetary scientist James Head told Nat Geo was “really exciting.”

The past, present, and future of Venus volcano research

Venus’s history of volcanic activity is well known. In the early 1990s, the Magellan orbiter’s cloud-penetrating radar revealed that the surface of the planet was filled with mountains resembling volcanoes on Earth. Five years ago, Magellan’s data was compared to that from the Venus Express probe, and found minerals abundant in lava on Earth in some areas.

Also in 2010, Venus Express detected excess heat coming from three spots on the surface, suggesting that lava had flowed on the planet as recently as 2.5 million years ago. Then, in 2012, the orbiter recorded a sudden rise in atmospheric sulfur dioxide followed by a gradual decrease in the gas, commonly spewed from volcanoes.

That detection “provided even more evidence that the volcanoes are awake,” Discovery News said, and National Geographic added that these newly identified hotspots “are about as close as you could get to a smoking gun” in terms of evidence of ongoing volcanic activity. Furthermore, Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California called the findings “very significant.”

Learning more about volcanoes on Venus “will likely require another long-term mission, but unfortunately there is nothing firmed up yet,” Discovery News said. One proposed US mission, the Venus In Situ Explorer, would be able to examine the planet’s atmospheric composition in search of more details about its interior, and the website added that there may still be yet more data in the Venus Express archive that could help scientists glean new insights.


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