Studying old radar data collected back in the early 1990s by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft, scientists have found that Venus today remains geologically active, and its plate tectonics are far more similar to Earth’s than previously thought.
The Earth and Venus were formed almost simultaneously, they are at close distances from the Sun and have similar sizes. Nevertheless, one planet today turned out to be green and full of life, while the other turned into one of the most inhospitable places in the entire solar system – hot to hundreds of degrees, covered with volcanic “scars”, with an incredibly thick, turbulent and toxic atmosphere.
The reason for this difference is not fully understood. But at least in part, this may be due to differences in the structure and dynamics of the interior of Venus and the Earth. The Earth’s lithosphere consists of vast plates floating on the surface of the molten mantle, which, mixing, constantly and actively moves them, “builds up” new oceanic plates and collides the continents. Whether this plate tectonics exists on Venus has not been exactly clear until now.
Some evidence indicates that the crust of the neighboring planet is too thick and massive for such movements to exist. However, many scientists believe that tectonics on Venus exists, albeit in a weakened form. Its lithospheric plates are more closely related to each other and move much weaker than on Earth.
Nevertheless, the movement exists – and it was possible to demonstrate it using archival data collected back in the early 1990s by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft.
In radar data, North Carolina State University planetary scientist Paul Byrne and his colleagues examined the vast lithospheric plates on the surface of the Venusian lowlands. Their structure indicates interactions between the surface and the interior, “unknown anywhere in the solar system, except for continental plates on Earth.”
Apparently, the currents of the Venusian mantle cause lateral (in the horizontal plane) displacements of lithospheric plates, reminiscent of the movements of ice blocks in a spring reservoir.
This shows that Venus today remains geologically active, and its plate tectonics is indeed an “intermediate option” between the high activity of the Earth and completely immobile worlds such as Mars, whose crust is a solid frozen shell.
Fortunately, a plethora of research missions to Venus has already been confirmed in recent months. Recently, NASA announced two new robotic spacecraft that will be launched in the late 2020s. Russia and India have also announced their own plans that include a spacecraft each, also to be sent later this decade.
As it turns out, Venus has more active similarities to Earth than previously thought. There is no better time to renew the scientific studies of the planet than now. And, each one of the missions that have already been announced will have a different set of tasks which means that in a decade, we will know times more about Venus than we know now.
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• Andrews, R. G. (2021, June 22). Venus Lacks Plate Tectonics. But It Has Something Much More Quirky. The New York Times.
• Byrne, P. K., Ghail, R. C., Şengör, A. M. C., James, P. B., Klimczak, C., & Solomon, S. C. (2021, June 29). A globally fragmented and mobile lithosphere on Venus. PNAS.
• Crane, L. (2021, June 21). Venus has huge land masses that jostle about like Earth’s continents. New Scientist.
• O’Neill, M. (2021, June 22). Signs of Geological Activity Discovered on Venus. SciTechDaily.
• Rincon, P. (2021, June 22). Signs of geological activity found on Venus. BBC News.
• Strickland, A. (2021, June 21). Venus may still be active based on ‘pack ice’ finding. CNN.
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