Venus isn't the most hospitable planet. With wind-speeds reaching 360 kilometers (225 miles) an hour, an atmospheric pressure 90 times higher than Earth's, surface temperatures topping 460°C (860°F), and a dense, extremely toxic atmosphere comprising of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid, it’s not exactly suited for life. That's before you get to the fact that it rains sulfuric acid and snows metal.
But new research presented at the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference last week suggests it may be a little more Earth-like than previously thought. A second look at old research revealed striking similarities between plate tectonic movement here on Earth and what is happening on our sister planet.
"It's a bit like the first part of plate tectonics on Earth," explained Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University, in an interview with Newsweek, referring to a point in geological history when large chunks of rock drifted around the surface of the Earth. The “rocks” on Venus, he says, are similar in size to microplates on this planet.
There are, however, some very important differences.
Convection in the mantle is what causes the Earth's tectonic plates to move as they do. Essentially, new crust forms when hot magma rises from the bottom of the ocean while old crust gets pushed into the mantle when two plates collide.
Byrne told Newsweek, he doesn't think this is the case for Venus. Instead, he and his team suspect it has something to do with the planet’s hellish climate. They argue that the boiling temperatures could create blocks on the planet's surface that nudge each other like continental plates do on Earth. They describe the landforms on Venus as comparable to mountain ranges in central Asia in terms of their distribution and appearance.
"Stuff has definitely been mobile in the relatively recent past on Venus," he added.
The scientists came to this conclusion after re-examining data collected on the Magellan mission (1990-1994). Rather than looking at sections of Venus' surface, they examined the surface as a whole and noticed markings that were recognizable, suggesting geological activity similar to Earth's.
The team hopes that by finding out when this activity occurred – and to what extent – geologers can achieve a better understanding of Earth and similar-sized planets elsewhere in the galaxy.