New research led by Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and published today in Science Advances shows that lava flows on Venus (VOLCANOES ON VENUS) may be only a few years old, suggesting that Venus could be volcanically active today—making it the only planet in our solar system, other than Earth, with recent eruptions.
“If Venus is indeed active today, it would make a great place to visit to better understand the interiors of planets,” says Dr. Justin Filiberto, the study’s lead author and a Universities Space Research Association (USRA) staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI). “For example, we could study how planets cool and why the Earth and Venus have active volcanism, but Mars does not. Future missions should be able to see these flows and changes in the surface and provide concrete evidence of its activity.”
Radar imaging from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft in the early 1990s revealed Venus, our neighboring planet, to be a world of volcanoes and extensive lava flows. In the 2000s, the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Venus Express orbiter shed new light on volcanism on Venus by measuring the amount of infrared light emitted from part of Venus’ surface (during its nighttime). These new data allowed scientists to identify fresh versus altered lava flows on the surface of Venus. However, until recently, the ages of lava eruptions and volcanoes on Venus were not well known because the alterations rate of fresh lava was not well constrained.
To see if lava flows seen on Venus are recent, scientists experimented with crystals of olivine, a green mineral commonly found in volcanic rock. They focused on how these crystals altered under conditions similar in some ways to what they might experience on the surface of Venus.
The researchers heated olivine along with regular Earth air in a furnace up to 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius) for up to a month. They found olivine became coated within days mostly with the reddish-black mineral hematite, which in turn made certain features of olivine more difficult to detect.
Since the ESA’s Venus Express, which orbited Venus from 2006 to 2014, apparently could detect signs of olivine even from orbit, these new findings suggested that such olivine came from volcanic eruptions recently, as otherwise chemical reactions with Venus’ atmosphere would have obscured it.
“This is the first time we may have seen active volcanism on another planet,” study lead author Justin Filiberto, a planetary scientist at the Universities Space Research Association’s Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, told Space.com.
The researchers are now following up on their research with other volcanic minerals baked in the air more similar to Venus’ atmosphere — that is, laden with carbon dioxide and sulfur. “The results with those are pretty much the same,” Filiberto said.