Planetary scientists have found groundbreaking evidence of recent volcanic activity on Venus. NASA Archive Magellan (opens in a new tab) The mission shows telltale signs that Maat Mons, an 8-kilometer-high volcano on Earth’s infernal twin, was active in 1991.
Magellan, launched in May 1989, was the first spacecraft to map the entire surface of Venus. Radar images from the mission revealed that Venus is dotted with volcanoes, but at the time scientists could not tell if any were still active.
Now, a new analysis of those 30-year-old records has detected a lava-bloated volcanic vent in the Atla Regio region, near the planet’s equator.
The discovery was inspired by NASA’s next mission to our sister planet, which will launch within a decade. VERITAS (opens in a new tab) (Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography And Spectroscopy) led by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, will scan Venus from surface to core to understand how a rocky planet so similar to ours became a hell burning.
“NASA’s selection of the VERITAS mission inspired me to search for recent volcanic activity in Magellan data,” Robert Herrick (opens in a new tab)research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and member of the VERITAS team, which led the search for the archival data, said in a statement (opens in a new tab). “I didn’t really expect to be successful, but after about 200 hours of manually comparing images from different orbits of Magellan, I saw two images of the same region taken eight months apart showing telltale geological changes caused by an eruption.”
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The researchers described the two images in a study published Wednesday, March 15 in the journal Science (opens in a new tab). They also presented their results to the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (opens in a new tab) at The Woodlands, Texas, on Wednesday.
Maat Mons is the tallest volcano on Venus, rising 8,000 meters above the arid volcanic plains and distorted terrain of the planet’s surface. In a photo taken in February 1991, a volcanic vent associated with Maat Mons appears nearly circular, with signs of drained lava on its outer slopes, and covers an area of less than 1 square mile (2.2 square kilometers). In October, Magellan captured the same overflowing vent from a bubbling lava lake; it was deformed and had doubled in size.
But the orbiter photographed the vent from different orbits and with poor resolution, making it difficult for scientists to compare images. They were, however, able to manually align them and build computer models of the vents, which helped them determine the cause of the geological changes.
“Only a few simulations matched the images, and the most likely scenario is that volcanic activity occurred on the surface of Venus during Magellan’s mission,” Scott Hensley (opens in a new tab), principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked on the Magellan radar mission, said in the statement. “Although this is only a data point for an entire planet, it confirms that there is modern geological activity.”
Lava outburst from Maat Mons crater would have been similar in size to Hawaii’s eruption Kilauea Volcano in 2018, the researchers said in the statement.
This finding gives scientists a taste of what NASA’s next mission is likely to reveal. VERITAS is the first spacecraft to return to Venus since the 1990s. Its mission is to create 3D models of the planet to reveal its innermost secrets.
“Venus is an enigmatic world, and Magellan teased so many possibilities,” Jennifer Whitten (opens in a new tab), an assistant professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and a member of the VERITAS team, said in the statement. “Now that we are certain that the planet experienced a volcanic eruption only 30 years ago, here is a small preview of the incredible discoveries that VERITAS will make.”