What we have learned from Venus now with data from three decades ago

Venus may be hell, but it cannot be considered a dead planet. New research suggests that, amid surface temperatures of up to 471 ° C and surface pressures 100 times higher than Earth’s, could still be geologically active. It’s encouraging news for those who think it could once have been (or still could be) habitable.

Earth’s lithosphere (its crust and top layer) is made up of plates that move and collide with each other, resulting in mountains, deep ocean trenches, and volcanic and seismic activity. This tectonic activity also plays an important role in the carbon cycle, the processes in which the element is released and reabsorbed in the ecosystem.. By regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the planet stays cool and comfortable all this time.

Until now, scientists have never observed anything similar on Venus. But we haven’t been able to rule it out either, because it’s difficult to make scientific observations of this planet (its thick clouds obscure its surface, and any spacecraft that landed there would likely melt away in a matter of hours). Based on the new findings, published this week in PNAS, scientists believe they have finally detected evidence of a new kind of tectonic activity on Venus.

The team has used observations made by the Magellan probe, which orbited Venus from 1990 to 1994 and mapped the surface using radar. The features that the probe had detected were analyzed before, but the new study has used a new computer model that can recognize surface deformations indicative of large block structures in the lithosphere. These blocks, each the size of Alaska (USA), appear to have slowly pushed against each other like broken blocks of ice in a pond or lake.

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This is quite different from the current type of plate tectonics on Earth, but, if confirmed, it would be evidence of currents of heat and molten material inside Venus, something that had never been observed. The authors think that parallels with Earth’s geology during the archaic eon (between 2.5 and 4 billion years) suggest that the ‘ice block’ patterns could be a transition from an earlier period of plate tectonics on Venus. , when the planet was more like Earth.

Photo: A false-color radar view of Lavinia Planitia, one of the lowlands of Venus. You can see where the lithosphere has broken up into purple blocks, made up of belts of yellow tectonic structures. Credits: Paul K. Byrne y Sean C. Solomon.

This movement “is widespread in the lowlands of Venus and suggests a style of global tectonics previously unrecognized, “says research scientist at Columbia University and co-author of the new study Sean Solomon.

Findings create even more excitement for new Venus missions recently approved by NASA and the European Space Agency. Solomon notes that he and his team hope to provide “critical data to test the ideas that we have described in our article.” Those missions won’t be ready to launch until near the end of the decade, so let’s hope the excitement doesn’t wane for years to come.

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