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Astronomy

10.2 The Geology of Venus

Astronomy10.2 The Geology of Venus
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

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.)

False-color radar map of Venus. The hemisphere shown in this image has lower regions that lie at higher latitudes (top and bottom), and highlands in the equatorial zone (center).
Figure 10.6 Radar Map of Venus. This composite image has a resolution of about 3 kilometers. Colors have been added to indicate elevation, with blue meaning low and brown and white high. The large continent Aphrodite stretches around the equator, where the bright (therefore rough) surface has been deformed by tectonic forces in the crust of Venus. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL/USGS)

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.

Radar image of impact craters on Venus. In panel (a), on the left, three impact craters are seen surrounded by ejecta fields. The scale at the lower right reads “50 k m,” which is about the size of the largest crater in the top right of the photograph. In panel (b), on the right, the triple crater and its irregular debris field lie at the center of the image. The scale at lower right reads “10 k m.”
Figure 10.7 Impact Craters on Venus. (a) These large impact craters are in the Lavinia region of Venus. Because they are rough, the crater rims and ejecta appear brighter in these radar images than do the smoother surrounding lava plains. The largest of these craters has a diameter of 50 kilometers. (b) This small, complex crater is named after writer Gertrude Stein. The triple impact was caused by the breaking apart of the incoming asteroid during its passage through the thick atmosphere of Venus. The projectile had an initial diameter of between 1 and 2 kilometers. (credit a: modification of work by NASA/JPL; credit b: modification of work by NASA/JPL)

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.

Pancake-shaped volcanoes on Venus. Five of these dome-shaped volcanoes are shown in this image. Three are clustered together in the center left of the photograph, and two others are clustered together in the center right of the photograph.
Figure 10.8 Pancake-Shaped Volcanoes on Venus. These remarkable circular domes, each about 25 kilometers across and about 2 kilometers tall, are the result of eruptions of highly viscous (sludgy) lava that spreads out evenly in all directions. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL)

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).

The Fotla Corona. This circular volcanic feature, when seen from above, has the appearance of the beloved Muppets character. Three pancake volcanoes lie within the corona, one below center for the snout, one above and one to the left for the eyes. A single pancake volcano above and outside the corona forms one of the ears.
Figure 10.9 The “Miss Piggy” Corona. Fotla Corona is located in the plains to the south of Aphrodite Terra. Curved fracture patterns show where the material beneath has put stress on the surface. A number of pancake and dome volcanoes are also visible. Fotla was a Celtic fertility goddess. Some students see a resemblance between this corona and Miss Piggy of the Muppets (her left ear, at the top of the picture, is the pancake volcano in the upper center of the image). (credit: NASA/JPL)

Tectonic Activity

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.

Venusian ridges and cracks on the Lakshmi Plains. Two parallel series of cracks run perpendicular to each other in this image, the brighter set runs from the bottom left to the top right while a fainter set runs from the top left to the lower right.
Figure 10.10 Ridges and Cracks. This region of the Lakshmi Plains on Venus has been fractured by tectonic forces to produce a cross-hatched grid of cracks and ridges. Be sure to notice the fainter linear features that run perpendicular to the brighter ones. As this is a radar image, the brightness of the ridges indicates their relative height. This image shows a region about 80 kilometers wide and 37 kilometers high. Lakshmi is a Hindu goddess of prosperity. (credit: modification of work by Magellan Team, JPL, NASA)

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.

Fisheye view of the surface of Venus. The base of the Venera probe is visible at the bottom center of this photograph while flat rocks and dark soil stretch to the horizon at the upper left and upper right.
Figure 10.11 Surface of Venus. These views of the surface of Venus are from the Venera 13 spacecraft. Everything is orange because the thick atmosphere of Venus absorbs the bluer colors of light. The horizon is visible in the upper corner of each image. (credit: NASA)
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© Oct 13, 2016 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.