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Potentially Active Volcanoes Found on Planet Venus

Perspective View of Maat Mons
Perspective View of Maat Mons, a Potentially Active Volcano on Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A recent scientific study has revealed the detection of potentially active volcanoes on the planet Venus using data gathered by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft in the early 1990s.

The discovery was announced on March 15 in a paper published by researchers who observed changes in a vent located near Maat Mons, one of the largest volcanoes on Venus.

Robert Herrick, a researcher at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, stated at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) held in Texas and virtually, that the discovery was made in the most probable location for new volcanic activity.

The team of scientists analyzed the data in great detail and confirmed the presence of volcanic activity on the planet.

Magellan spacecraft took images between 1990 and 1992

Between 1990 and 1992, NASA’s Magellan spacecraft employed synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to capture detailed surface images of Venus. The SAR technology provided resolution ranging from 100 to 300 meters.

The spacecraft was in a highly elliptical orbit, taking overlapping swaths of data during its descending passes. Each surface location was imaged once per sidereal day as Venus rotated.

Images were obtained over sets of three sidereal days, which were referred to as cycles. Cycle 1 provided coverage of around 84% of the planet using east-looking SAR images.

Cycle 2 filled gaps from Cycle 1 and covered a further 35% of the planet using west-looking SAR.

During Cycle 3, approximately 15% of Venus was imaged again using east-looking SAR at an incidence angle that differed by around 20° from that used in Cycle 1.

Roughly 8% of the planet was imaged during all three cycles, providing a total of around 42% of the global surface area captured two or more times.

Analysis of two images

The study examined two Magellan spacecraft images captured eight months apart in 1991, revealing significant changes in a volcanic vent on the surface of Venus.

The scientists observed that the vent, measuring 0.7 square miles (2 square kilometers), had grown considerably larger, expanding to approximately 1.5 square miles (4 square km) over the eight-month period.

Furthermore, the shape of the vent had transformed significantly from a circular form in the initial image to a kidney-shaped structure with a dark interior in the second image. These changes provide conclusive evidence of a volcanic eruption on the surface of Venus.

Robert Herrick presented these findings during his presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC). He further explained that the dark patch observed in the second image is likely a lava lake filling the vent to its rim.

The confirmation process of volcanoes on Venus

Robert Herrick, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, teamed up with Scott Hensley, a project scientist for two of NASA’s upcoming Venus missions, to confirm the presence of volcanic activity on Venus.

Hensley expressed cautious optimism and excitement upon reviewing the images, as previous attempts to identify similar changes in Venusian images had failed to yield definitive results.

Moreover, Hensley acknowledged that variations in lighting and spacecraft angles could make it challenging to differentiate between changes resulting from volcanic activity and other factors.

To eliminate the possibility that changes in spacecraft angles were responsible for the observed changes, Hensley conducted simulations using Magellan data about the vent’s shape, depth, and other characteristics.

These simulations produced hundreds of volcanic vents, of which 60 are outlined in the paper published on Wednesday in the journal Science.

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