NASA scientists have discovered direct evidence of volcanic activity on Venus for the first time. The discovery was made by studying archival radar images of Venus taken over 30 years ago by NASA's Magellan mission. The images showed a volcanic vent changing shape and size significantly in less than a year, providing direct geological evidence of recent volcanic activity.
Magellan’s data with benefit for the future
NASA’s Magellan mission has long been considered one of the most groundbreaking space exploration endeavors of our time. Launched in 1989, the spacecraft orbited Venus for four years, capturing and sending back detailed radar images of the planet’s surface. These images revolutionized our understanding of Venus, a planet that had been largely shrouded in mystery up until that point.
Now, more than 30 years later, scientists have made a stunning discovery using Magellan’s archival radar images. They have observed direct evidence of volcanic activity on Venus, the first time such evidence has been seen on Earth’s twin. This discovery could have major implications for our understanding of the planet and its geological processes.
VERITAS mission within a decade
Understanding how active volcanoes affect a planet's evolution and habitability is essential. Thus, NASA's new mission, VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy), will launch within a decade to study Venus from its surface to its core. The goal is to understand how a rocky planet, similar in size to Earth, became a world covered in volcanic plains and deformed terrain, hidden beneath a thick, hot, toxic atmosphere.
Robert Herrick, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who led the search for archival data of recent volcanic activity, said that NASA's selection of the VERITAS mission inspired him to search for recent volcanic activity in Magellan data. Herrick led the search for archival data, and after about 200 hours of manually comparing images of different Magellan orbits, he identified two images of the same region taken eight months apart exhibiting telltale geological changes caused by an eruption.
The geological changes that Herrick found occurred in Atla Regio, a vast highland region near Venus' equator, which hosts two of the planet's largest volcanoes, Ozza Mons and Maat Mons. While scrutinizing Magellan radar images, Herrick identified a volcanic vent associated with Maat Mons that changed significantly between February and October 1991.
Herrick and Scott Hensley, the project scientist for VERITAS, created computer models of the vent in various configurations to test different geological-event scenarios, such as landslides. They concluded that only an eruption could have caused the changes.
VERITAS will use synthetic aperture radar and a near-infrared spectrometer to create 3D global maps and determine the structure of Venus' interior. This will offer clues about the planet's past and present geologic processes. VERITAS' data will be available online, enabling researchers to apply cutting-edge techniques to analyze the planet and reveal its innermost secrets.
More data about the mysterious planet
The upcoming VERITAS mission will provide scientists with valuable information about a planet that has long been considered enigmatic – Venus. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about it.
EnVision, a European Space Agency mission to Venus, will also complement VERITAS studies. The spacecraft will carry a synthetic aperture radar (called VenSAR), which is being developed at JPL, as well as a spectrometer similar to the one VERITAS will carry.