From a distance, the planet Venus looks a calm and serene place. But take a closer look, and things might not be quite so peaceful. Named after the Roman goddess of beauty, the surface of Venus is actually a very unattractive place to be, with choking fumes of sulphur dioxide and a surface temperature hot enough to melt zinc. Things have got even uglier, as scientists get more evidence of active volcanoes on its surface.
This hellish image is really an artists impression of what an active volcano on the surface of Venus might look like. Although, the surface of Venus is littered with shield volcanoes, most have been inactive for millions of years.
Evidence comes not from the surface of Venus, but from its atmosphere. Although on average its atmosphere only has 0.015% sulphur dioxide, this is concentrated in the lower sections. Higher up, interactions with radiation from the sun break it down into different chemicals. The Venus Express spacecraft has been monitoring the atmosphere of the planet for six years, and discovered higher than normal levels of the gas in the upper atmosphere. One intriguing cause of this extra sulphur dioxide is that it is being produced by active volcanoes, like it is on Earth.
There could be another explanation, as Dr Jean-Loup Bertaux from ESA explains:
“A volcanic eruption could act like a piston to blast sulphur dioxide up to these levels, but peculiarities in the circulation of the planet that we don’t yet fully understand could also mix the gas to reproduce the same result”
This extra sulphur dioxide could turn out to be a normal cycle of Venus’s atmosphere that we don’t fully understand yet. However, the result does support other pieces of evidence which suggest active volcanism is still present on Venus.
In 2010, nine volcanic hotspots – similar to areas like Hawaii on Earth – were identified by a team of scientists publishing in the journal Science. Using data from the Venus Express they studied the composition of lava flows on the surface, and concluded that some may be relatively young – 2.5 million years old or so.
Scientific interest in Venus is increasing – NASA is planning to visit again sometime between 2020 and 2025 – so hopefully in the future the question of volcanism on Venus will be answered.
Source: European Space Agency