Magellan Probe Data Points to Recent Volcanic Activity on Venus :: NASANET

This computer-generated 3D model of the surface of Venus shows the Sif Mons volcano, which exhibits signs of ongoing activity. Using data from NASA’s Magellan mission, Italian researchers detected evidence of an eruption while the spacecraft orbited the planet in the early 1990s. Credits: NASA/JPL

An analysis of radar data from the Magellan space probe has detected that two volcanoes erupted in the early 1990s. This adds to the 2023 discovery of a different active volcano in the Magellan data.

Direct geological evidence of recent volcanic activity on Venus has been observed for the second time. Scientists in Italy analyzed archival data from NASA’s Magellan mission to reveal surface changes that indicate the formation of new rocks from lava flows linked to volcanoes that erupted while the spacecraft orbited the planet. Managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Magellan mapped 98% of the planet’s surface between 1990 and 1992, and the images it generated remain the most detailed of Venus to date.

“Using these maps as a guide, our results show that Venus may be much more volcanically active than previously thought,” said Davide Sulcanese of the University d’Annunzio in Pescara, Italy, who led the study. “By analyzing the lava flows we observed in two places on the planet, we have discovered that volcanic activity on Venus could be comparable to that on Earth.”

Before beginning its journey to Venus, NASA’s Magellan spacecraft was released while in Earth orbit by Space Shuttle Atlantis mission STS-30. Captured in this photo from May 4, 1989, Magellan was the first planetary spacecraft to be launched from the shuttle. Credit: NASA

This latest discovery builds on the landmark 2023 discovery of Magellan Synthetic Aperture Radar images that revealed changes to a vent associated with the Maat Mons volcano near Venus’ equator. The radar images turned out to be the first direct evidence of a recent volcanic eruption on the planet. By comparing radar images of Magellan over time, the authors of the 2023 study detected changes caused by the outflow of molten rock from Venus’ subsurface filling the vent crater and spilling down the slopes of the vent.

Scientists study active volcanoes to understand how a planet’s interior can shape its crust, drive its evolution, and affect its habitability. The discovery of recent volcanism on Venus provides valuable information about the planet’s history and why it took a different evolutionary path than Earth.

Radar Backscatter

For the new study, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the researchers also focused on archival data from the Magellan Synthetic Aperture Radar. The radio waves sent by the radar traveled through Venus’ thick cloud cover, then bounced off the planet’s surface and returned to the spacecraft. These reflected radar signals, called backscatter, carried information about the rock surface material they encountered.

The two sites studied were the Sif Mons volcano in Eistla Regio and the western part of Niobe Planitia, which is home to numerous volcanic formations. By analyzing backscatter data received from both locations in 1990 and again in 1992, the researchers found that the radar signal strength increased along certain trajectories during subsequent orbits. These changes suggested the formation of new rock, most likely solidified lava from the volcanic activity that occurred during that two-year period. But they also considered other possibilities, such as the presence of microdunes (formed from windblown sand) and atmospheric effects that could interfere with the radar signal.

To help confirm new rocks, researchers analyzed altimetry (surface height) data from Magellan to determine the slope of the topography and locate obstacles around which lava would flow.

“We interpret these signals as flows along volcanic slopes or plains that can deflect around obstacles like shield volcanoes like a fluid,” said study co-author Marco Mastrogiuseppe of Sapienza University of Rome. “After ruling out other possibilities, we confirmed that our best interpretation is that these are new lava flows.”

Using flows on Earth as a comparison, the researchers estimate that the new rock placed in both locations is between 3 and 20 meters deep, on average. They also estimate that the Sif Mons eruption produced around 30 square kilometers of rock, enough to fill at least 36,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The Niobe Planitia eruption produced approximately 45 square kilometers of rock, which would fill 54,000 Olympic swimming pools. For comparison, the 2022 eruption of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the largest active volcano on Earth, produced a lava flow with enough material to fill 100,000 Olympic swimming pools.

“This exciting work provides another example of volcanic change on Venus from new lava flows that augments the change in vents that Dr. Robert Herrick and I reported last year,” said Scott Hensley, principal research scientist at JPL and co-author of the 2023 study. “This result, along with the previous discovery of current geological activity, increases enthusiasm in the planetary science community for future missions to Venus.”

Discovering Volcanoes

Hensley is the project scientist for NASA’s upcoming VERITAS mission and Mastrogiuseppe is a member of its science team. VERITAS, short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Surveying and Spectroscopy, is planned to launch early in the next decade and will use a next-generation synthetic aperture radar to create 3D global maps and a near-infrared spectrometer to determine what the surface of Venus is made of and at the same time track volcanic activity. Additionally, the spacecraft will measure the planet’s gravitational field to determine its internal structure.

“These new discoveries of recent volcanic activity on Venus by our international colleagues provide compelling evidence for the types of regions we should target with VERITAS when it reaches Venus,” said Suzanne Smrekar, a JPL senior scientist and VERITAS principal investigator. . “Our spacecraft will have a set of approaches to identifying surface changes that are much more comprehensive and higher resolution than the Magellan images. “Evidence of activity, even in the lower resolution Magellan data, increases the potential to revolutionize our understanding of this enigmatic world.”

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