In a first, scientists have seen direct evidence of active volcanoes on Earth’s twin planet, Venus. A photo shared by Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has gone viral on Instagram, with over 2 million likes.
According to an update on the Nasa website, when scientists recently took a closer look at 30-year-old archived images of the surface of Venus, they detected signs of volcanic activity emanating from a giant crater called Maat Mons.
The observation revealed that the volcanic vent had changed shape and increased in size over eight months (February and October 1991).
Robert Herrick, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who led the search of the archival data said: “I didn’t really expect to be successful, but after about 200 hours of manually comparing the images of different Magellan orbits, I saw two images of the same region taken eight months apart exhibiting telltale geological changes caused by an eruption.”
The team of scientists likens the size of the lava flow generated by the Maat Mons activity to the 2018 Kilauea eruption on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The images were captured by Nasa’s Magellan spacecraft in the early 1990s as it circled our planetary neighbour. The Magellan mission was the first to record images of the entire surface of Venus, which is similar in size and composition to the Earth.
Finally, in 1994, the spacecraft intentionally plunged into Venus’ hot, toxic atmosphere to collect a final set of data.
New mission to Venus
Scientists study active volcanoes to understand how a planet’s interior can shape its crust, drive its evolution, and affect its habitability.
According to Nasa, a set of new missions will head for Venus within a decade, including the Veritas (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy) mission.
Led by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the Veritas orbiter will study Venus from surface to core to understand how a rocky planet about the same size as Earth took a very different path, developing into a world covered in volcanic plains and deformed terrain hidden beneath a thick, hot, toxic atmosphere.
The search and its conclusions are described in a new study published in the journal Science. Herrick also presented the findings at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in the Woodlands, Texas, on March 15.
According to Nasa: "Veritas will use state-of-the-art synthetic aperture radar to create 3D global maps and a near-infrared spectrometer to figure out what the surface is made of. The spacecraft will also measure the planet’s gravitational field to determine the structure of Venus’ interior. Together, the instruments will offer clues about the planet’s past and present geologic processes.
"And whereas Magellan’s data was originally cumbersome to study – Herrick said that in the 1990s they relied on boxes of CDs of Venus data that were compiled by Nasa and delivered in the mail – Veritas’ data will be available online to the science community. That will enable researchers to apply cutting-edge techniques, such as machine learning, to analyse the planet and help reveal its innermost secrets."
The studies will be complemented by EnVision, an ESA (European Space Agency) mission to Venus slated for launch in the early 2030s. The spacecraft will carry its synthetic aperture radar (called VenSAR), as well as a spectrometer similar to the one Veritas will carry.