By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the general features of the surface of Venus
- Explain what the study of craters on Venus tells us about the age of its surface
- Compare tectonic activity and volcanoes on Venus with those of Earth
- Explain why the surface of Venus is inhospitable to human life
Since Venus has about the same size and composition as Earth, we might expect its geology to be similar. This is partly true, but Venus does not exhibit the same kind of plate tectonics as Earth, and we will see that its lack of erosion results in a very different surface appearance.
Spacecraft Exploration of Venus
Nearly 50 spacecraft have been launched to Venus, but only about half were successful. Although the 1962 US Mariner 2 flyby was the first, the Soviet Union launched most of the subsequent missions to Venus. In 1970, Venera 7 became the first probe to land and broadcast data from the surface of Venus. It operated for 23 minutes before succumbing to the high surface temperature. Additional Venera probes and landers followed, photographing the surface and analyzing the atmosphere and soil.
To understand the geology of Venus, however, we needed to make a global study of its surface, a task made very difficult by the perpetual cloud layers surrounding the planet. The problem resembles the challenge facing air traffic controllers at an airport, when the weather is so cloudy or smoggy that they can’t locate the incoming planes visually. The solution is similar in both cases: use a radar instrument to probe through the obscuring layer.
The first global radar map was made by the US Pioneer Venus orbiter in the late 1970s, followed by better maps from the twin Soviet Venera 15 and 16 radar orbiters in the early 1980s. However, most of our information on the geology of Venus is derived from the US Magellan spacecraft, which mapped Venus with a powerful imaging radar. Magellan produced images with a resolution of 100 meters, much better than that of previous missions, yielding our first detailed look at the surface of our sister planet (Figure 10.6). (The Magellan spacecraft returned more data to Earth than all previous planetary missions combined; each 100 minutes of data transmission from the spacecraft provided enough information, if translated into characters, to fill two 30-volume encyclopedias.)
Consider for a moment how good Magellan’s resolution of 100 meters really is. It means the radar images from Venus can show anything on the surface larger than a football field. Suddenly, a whole host of topographic features on Venus became accessible to our view. As you look at the radar images throughout this chapter, bear in mind that these are constructed from radar reflections, not from visible-light photographs. For example, bright features on these radar images are an indication of rough terrain, whereas darker regions are smoother.
Probing Through the Clouds of Venus
The radar maps of Venus reveal a planet that looks much the way Earth might look if our planet’s surface were not constantly being changed by erosion and deposition of sediment. Because there is no water or ice on Venus and the surface wind speeds are low, almost nothing obscures or erases the complex geological features produced by the movements of Venus’ crust, by volcanic eruptions, and by impact craters. Having finally penetrated below the clouds of Venus, we find its surface to be naked, revealing the history of hundreds of millions of years of geological activity.
About 75% of the surface of Venus consists of lowland lava plains. Superficially, these plains resemble the basaltic ocean basins of Earth, but they were not produced in quite the same way. There is no evidence of subduction zones on Venus, indicating that, unlike Earth, this planet never experienced plate tectonics. Although convection (the rising of hot materials) in its mantle generated great stresses in the crust of Venus, they did not start large continental plates moving. The formation of the lava plains of Venus more nearly resembles that of the lunar maria. Both were the result of widespread lava eruptions without the crustal spreading associated with plate tectonics.
Rising above the lowland lava plains are two full-scale continents of mountainous terrain. The largest continent on Venus, called Aphrodite, is about the size of Africa (you can see it stand out in Figure 10.6). Aphrodite stretches along the equator for about one-third of the way around the planet. Next in size is the northern highland region Ishtar, which is about the size of Australia. Ishtar contains the highest region on the planet, the Maxwell Mountains, which rise 11 kilometers above the surrounding lowlands. (The Maxwell Mountains are the only feature on Venus named after a man. They commemorate James Clerk Maxwell, whose theory of electromagnetism led to the invention of radar. All other features are named for women, either from history or mythology.)
Craters and the Age of the Venus Surface
One of the first questions astronomers addressed with the high-resolution Magellan images was the age of the surface of Venus. Remember that the age of a planetary surface is rarely the age of the world it is on. A young age merely implies an active geology in that location. Such ages can be derived from counting impact craters. Figure 10.7 is an example of what these craters look like on the Venus radar images. The more densely cratered the surface, the greater its age. The largest crater on Venus (called Mead) is 275 kilometers in diameter, slightly larger than the largest known terrestrial crater (Chicxulub), but much smaller than the lunar impact basins.
You might think that the thick atmosphere of Venus would protect the surface from impacts, burning up the projectiles long before they could reach the surface. But this is the case for only smaller projectiles. Crater statistics show very few craters less than 10 kilometers in diameter, indicating that projectiles smaller than about 1 kilometer (the size that typically produces a 10-kilometer crater) were stopped by the atmosphere. Those craters with diameters from 10 to 30 kilometers are frequently distorted or multiple, apparently because the incoming projectile broke apart in the atmosphere before it could strike the ground as shown in the Stein crater in Figure 10.7. If we limit ourselves to impacts that produce craters with diameters of 30 kilometers or larger, however, then crater counts are as useful on Venus for measuring surface age as they are on airless bodies such as the Moon.
The large craters in the venusian plains indicate an average surface age that is only between 300 and 600 million years. These results indicate that Venus is indeed a planet with persistent geological activity, intermediate between that of Earth’s ocean basins (which are younger and more active) and that of its continents (which are older and less active).
Almost all of the large craters on Venus look fresh, with little degradation or filling in by either lava or windblown dust. This is one way we know that the rates of erosion or sediment deposition are very low. We have the impression that relatively little has happened since the venusian plains were last resurfaced by large-scale volcanic activity. Apparently Venus experienced some sort of planet-wide volcanic convulsion between 300 and 600 million years ago, a mysterious event that is unlike anything in terrestrial history.
Volcanoes on Venus
Like Earth, Venus is a planet that has experienced widespread volcanism. In the lowland plains, volcanic eruptions are the principal way the surface is renewed, with large flows of highly fluid lava destroying old craters and generating a fresh surface. In addition, numerous younger volcanic mountains and other structures are associated with surface hot spots—places where convection in the planet’s mantle transports the interior heat to the surface.
The largest individual volcano on Venus, called Sif Mons, is about 500 kilometers across and 3 kilometers high—broader but lower than the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa. At its top is a volcanic crater, or caldera, about 40 kilometers across, and its slopes show individual lava flows up to 500 kilometers long. Thousands of smaller volcanoes dot the surface, down to the limit of visibility of the Magellan images, which correspond to cones or domes about the size of a shopping mall parking lot. Most of these seem similar to terrestrial volcanoes. Other volcanoes have unusual shapes, such as the “pancake domes” illustrated in Figure 10.8.
All of the volcanism is the result of eruption of lava onto the surface of the planet. But the hot lava rising from the interior of a planet does not always make it to the surface. On both Earth and Venus, this upwelling lava can collect to produce bulges in the crust. Many of the granite mountain ranges on Earth, such as the Sierra Nevada in California, involve such subsurface volcanism. These bulges are common on Venus, where they produce large circular or oval features called coronae (singular: corona) (Figure 10.9).
Convection currents of molten material in the mantle of Venus push and stretch the crust. Such forces are called tectonic, and the geological features that result from these forces are called tectonic features. On Venus’ lowland plains, tectonic forces have broken the lava surface to create remarkable patterns of ridges and cracks (Figure 10.10). In a few places, the crust has even torn apart to generate rift valleys. The circular features associated with coronae are tectonic ridges and cracks, and most of the mountains of Venus also owe their existence to tectonic forces.
The Ishtar continent, which has the highest elevations on Venus, is the most dramatic product of these tectonic forces. Ishtar and its tall Maxwell Mountains resemble the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan Mountains on Earth. Both are the product of compression of the crust, and both are maintained by the continuing forces of mantle convection.
On Venus’ Surface
The successful Venera landers of the 1970s found themselves on an extraordinarily inhospitable planet, with a surface pressure of 90 bars and a temperature hot enough to melt lead and zinc. Despite these unpleasant conditions, the spacecraft were able to photograph their surroundings and collect surface samples for chemical analysis before their instruments gave out. The diffuse sunlight striking the surface was tinted red by the clouds, and the illumination level was equivalent to a heavy overcast on Earth.
The probes found that the rock in the landing areas is igneous, primarily basalts. Examples of the Venera photographs are shown in Figure 10.11. Each picture shows a flat, desolate landscape with a variety of rocks, some of which may be ejecta from impacts. Other areas show flat, layered lava flows. There have been no further landings on Venus since the 1970s. However, NASA has plans for a radar orbiter with much higher resolution than Magellan, that will focus on the complex structures in the Aphrodite region. Some geologists think this area shows evidence of geologic plates, with past activity analogous to the plate tectonics on Earth.