This computer-generated image shows the volcanic vent Maat Mons that researchers say changed between February and October 1991. [NASA/JPL-Caltech]
Inspired by a forthcoming mission to Earth’s brutally toasty sibling planet, Venus, researcher Robert Herrick looked back at 30-year-old images from a previous mission. And the University of Alaska scientist found an exciting surprise. In images captured eight months apart in 1991 via NASA’s Magellan spacecraft, Herrick noted a volcanic vent changed shape and nearby plains gained a different texture. In a new study published in the March 13 issue of Science, he and his coauthor Scott Hensley of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory say that sometime between the two images, magma oozed at the Venusian surface. This would be the first time current volcanic activity has been directly observed at the toasty planet next door.
The volcanic vent, known as Maat Mons, in the first image from February 1991 appeared round and covered 1 square mile (2.2 square kilometers). In the image captured in October 1991, the same vent was no longer circular, and it then covered double the area. The researchers used computer simulations to compare different physical mechanisms that could have altered the vent shape, including landslides, but volcanism seems the most likely, they say. “While this is just one data point for an entire planet, it confirms there is modern geological activity,” said Hensley in a press statement.
Scientists are anxious for the next mission to this neighboring planet, and to map its surface in much higher precision. Unfortunately, NASA’s next Venus mission that could address that need and look for active volcanisms — the Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy (VERITAS) — won’t launch until at least 2031. (This date was recently delayed by three years due to another JPL-led mission, Psyche, that missed its launch opportunity late 2022 due to organizational and other issues. Psyche’s delay pushed out the schedule, funds, and personal requirements of VERITAS.)
Two other spacecraft will head to Venus in the next decade: NASA’s Deep Atmosphere of Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) mission and the European Space Agency’s EnVision mission. These two will focus on the atmosphere, and combined with VERITAS data, will reveal much about the shrouded planet next door.
Liz Kruesi is the editor of Mercury magazine and Mercury Online. She has shared the stories of astronomy since 2005. Read more articles by Liz.