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Volcanic Venus

Study Changes View of Planet Once Considered Geologically Inactive

By Kimbra Cutlip

A 3D rendition of the surface of Venus shows two coronae, ring-like structures formed when hot material inside the planet rises through the mantle and erupts through the crust.

Image courtesy Laurent Montési

A 3D rendition of the surface of Venus shows two coronae, ring-like structures formed when hot material inside the planet rises through the mantle and erupts through the crust. New research found that at least 37 coronae, including one named Aramaiti, on the left in this image, show recent geologic activity. The black line represents a gap in data.

A new study co-authored by a University of Maryland researcher identified 37 recently active volcanic structures on Venus, providing some of the best evidence yet that our nearest planetary neighbor is still geologically active. 

A research paper on the work, conducted with scientists at the Institute of Geophysics at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, was published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“This is the first time we are able to point to specific structures and say, ‘Look, this is not an ancient volcano but one that is active today, dormant perhaps, but not dead,’” said Laurent Montési, a professor of geology at UMD and co-author of the research paper. “This study significantly changes the view of Venus from a mostly inactive planet to one whose interior is still churning and can feed many active volcanoes.”

Scientists have known for some time that Venus has a younger surface than planets like Mars and Mercury, which have cold interiors. Evidence of a warm interior and geologic activity dots Venus’ surface in the form of ring-like structures known as “coronae,” which form when plumes of hot material deep inside the planet rise through the mantle layer and crust—similar to the process that formed the volcanic Hawaiian Islands.

It was thought that the coronae on Venus were probably signs of ancient volcanism, and that Venus had since cooled enough to slow geological activity in the planet’s interior and harden the crust so that warm material from deep inside would not be able to puncture through. In addition, the exact processes by which mantle plumes formed coronae on Venus and the reasons for variation among coronae have been matters for debate. 

In the new study, the researchers used numerical models of thermo-mechanical activity beneath the surface of Venus to create high-resolution, 3D simulations of coronae formation. Their simulations provide a more detailed view of the process than ever before.

The results helped Montési and his colleagues identify features present only in recently active coronae. The team was then able to match features developed by the model to those observed on the surface of Venus, revealing that some of the variation in coronae across the planet represents different stages of geological development. The study provides the first evidence that coronae on Venus are still evolving, indicating that the interior of the planet is still churning. 

The active coronae on Venus are clustered in a handful of locations, suggesting areas where the planet is most active and providing clues to the workings of the planet’s interior. These results may help identify target areas where geologic instruments should be placed on future missions to Venus, such as Europe’s EnVision that is scheduled to launch in 2032.

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