Alive and Furious

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Earth’s neighbor, Venus, is not “dead” – at least in terms of volcanism, a new study revealed.

Recent re-analyses of data collected by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft in the 1990s unveiled compelling evidence of ongoing volcanic activity on Venus.

“Using these maps as a guide, our results show that Venus may be far more volcanically active than previously thought,” lead author Davide Sulcanese said in a statement for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “By analyzing the lava flows we observed in two locations on the planet, we have discovered that the volcanic activity on Venus could be comparable to that on Earth.”

He and his team discovered changes in the radar signal brightness in two of Venus’ areas: The Sif Mons volcano and the Niobe Planitia plain. These variations point to active lava flows, challenging the long-held belief that Venus is a “dead” planet.

The researchers confirmed the volcanic origin of these changes by ruling out other causes such as atmospheric interference or observational errors. Their findings indicate that the two locations are producing lava at rates similar to average terrestrial volcanoes, with estimated annual outputs of 1 to 1.5 cubic miles.

This suggests that Venus’s total volcanic activity may be comparable to Earth’s.

The findings build on a 2023 study that identified volcanic activity near the Maat Mons volcano near Venus’ equator. Both studies relied on radar images from Magellan, which mapped 98 percent of the planet’s surface between 1990 and 1992.

These findings have significant implications for upcoming missions to Venus.

NASA’s VERITAS and the European Space Agency’s EnVision, both set to launch in the early 2030s, will focus on these regions to further investigate Venus’s volcanic activity. These missions aim to provide more detailed observations than Magellan.

“Our spacecraft will have a suite of approaches for identifying surface changes that are far more comprehensive and higher resolution than Magellan images,” said VERITAS principal investigator Suzanne Smrekar. “Evidence for activity, even in the lower-resolution Magellan data, supercharges the potential to revolutionize our understanding of this enigmatic world.”

Correction: In Friday’s NEED TO KNOW section, we said in our “Into the Fire” item that Mexico was Latin America’s most populous country. In fact, Brazil is the most populous country in the region. We apologize for the error.

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