free debate

April 12, 2010

Venus May Still have Active Volcanoes

A Volcano on the Surface
Image Credit: NASA/JPL
I find Venus one of the most interesting places in our solar system because it is so hard to study. Venus is shrouded in an atmosphere 90 times thicker then ours, making the surface incredibly difficult to image. What images we do have are mainly from the early days of the space age. The European Space Agency launched the Venus Express Mission in 2005, and it has given us new insights into this mysterious planet. Still Venus is a place where we have lots of big questions with few answers. One of these questions for a long time has been if Venus is volcanically active. We have seen volcanoes on Venus's surface, but could they all be dormant?

Venus and Earth are about the same size. The heat in the Earths core that allows it to stay molten comes from when the planet originally formed, as well as the radioactive decay of elements. Since Venus should be made up of about the same stuff as the Earth, it is reasonable to assume that it also has a molten core. If there is a molten core that heat will want to escape, and it does so on the Earth via volcanoes. So what about Venus?

New data from Venus Express suggests that there may still be active volcanoes on the surface of Venus. Peeking through the clouds in infrared light, researchers looked for variations in the ground temperature. "The solidified lava flows, which radiate heat from the surface, seem hardly weathered. So we can conclude that they are younger than 2.5 million years old – and the majority are probably younger than 250,000 years," Jörn Helbert from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research. "In geological terms, this means that they are practically from the present day." This is not a slam dunk of Cytherean* volcanism though. There could be hot spots on the surface, without active volcanoes. So while this debate is certainly not over, this is an exciting new piece of the puzzle for scientists to look at.

*Cytherean, not Venusian, is the proper term for things related to the planet Venus. It also sounds cooler.