NASA's Magellan images reveal volcanic activity on Venus

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New analysis of images captured in the early 1990s by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft reveals evidence of volcanic activity on Venus, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Science. This computer-generated 3D model of Venus’ surface shows the summit of Maat Mons. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

March 15 (UPI) — A new look at some old images of the surface of Venus has revealed evidence of volcanic activity.

New analysis of images captured in the early 1990s by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft reveal surface changes in a volcanic vent over an eight-month period, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Science, and presented at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.

“After about 200 hours of manually comparing the images of different Magellan orbits, I saw two images of the same region taken eight months apart exhibiting telltale geological changes caused by an eruption,” lead study author Robert Herrick, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said in a statement.

Venus, which according to scientists is “geographically young” like Earth, is also nearly the same size and mass. The VERITAS orbiter, which stands for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy, will launch within a decade to study the planet to determine how “Earth’s twin” ended up covered with volcanic terrain beneath a clouded, toxic atmosphere.

Herrick, who also works on the VERITAS mission, said he studied the older images of Venus’ largest volcanoes — called Ozza and Maat Mons in the Atlo Regio area of the planet — and discovered the north side of the domed volcano of Maat Mons appearing to nearly double in size between February and October of 1991. The image also showed volcanic flows downhill from the vent.

NASA’s Magellan probe used radar beams to create a photo-quality map of Venus’ cloud-shrouded surface in 1991. While the images were taken at a much lower resolution, Herrick worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to create computer-generated 3D models to simulate and study the changes.

“Only a couple of the simulations matched the imagery, and the most likely scenario is that volcanic activity occurred on Venus’ surface during Magellan’s mission,” said Scott Hensley, project scientist for VERITAS.

“We now know the frequency is every few months or so, similar to the family of Earth’s big basaltic intraplate volcanoes like Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands, Canary Islands, etc.,” Herrick added.

“While this is just one data point for an entire planet, it confirms there is modern geological activity.”

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