Scientists have known for some time that the surface of Venus is dotted with volcanic features. However, due to the foggy atmosphere on the planet, it has always been uncertain whether Venus is still volcanically active – until now.
New compelling evidence suggests that Venus is volcanically active. It would be just another such planet we know of, other than Earth.
In the early 1990s, NASA’s Magellan spacecraft switched radar images showing extensive lava flows. Subsequent studies and missions, such as ESA’s Venus Express orbiter, measured the infrared light emitted by the planet’s surface at night to determine the age of lava flows. Although the data were good enough that scientists could make relative measurements between older and newer lava flows, their age could not be accurately estimated.
Some have speculated based on data that Venus may have been volcanically active as far back as 2.5 million years ago – a blink of an eye in geological time. But new evidence presented in a study led by Dr. Justin Filiberto, a researcher at the Lunar Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, may mean that Venus may even be volcanically active even now.
The researchers simulated Venus’ very dense atmosphere in the laboratory to assess its impact on lava flows over time. To their surprise, they found that olivine, a mineral rich in some basaltic rocks (covering 90% of Venus), reacted quickly with chemicals in Venus’ atmosphere, becoming coated with magnetite and hematite, both iron oxide minerals, in a matter of days.
The researchers also discovered that the infrared light emitted by these minerals will disappear in a few days, which is in line with the data recorded in the Venus Express mission.
“Our results show that lava flows that lack VNIR characteristics due to hematite are not more than a few years old. Therefore, Venus is now volcanically active, “the authors of the new study wrote in the journal Scientific progress.
Now only a new mission remains to confirm this hypothesis. Besides Earth, the only other confirmed volcanic active worlds we know of are Io, the moon of Jupiter; Triton, the moon of Neptune; and Enceladus, Saturn’s moon.
However, Mars, Pluto, Jupiter’s moon Europe could also be volcanically active.
“If Venus is really active today, it would be a great place to visit to better understand the interior of the planet. For example, we could study how the planets cool down and why Earth and Venus have active volcanism, but Mars does not, ”said Filiberto.
The next missions for Venus are Indian Shukrayaan-1 orbiter and Russian Venus-D spacecraft, planned for launch by 2023 and 2026, respectively.