ERIE, Pa. - With the Curiosity rover focusing celestial attention on Mars, Mercyhurst University geologist Dr. Nick Lang has opted to stay a little closer to home, targeting his current research on the planet nearest to Earth, Venus.
Lang and colleague Dr. Bradley Thomson, senior research scientist at Boston University, recently received a two-year, $100,000 grant from NASA to study clusters of small volcanoes on Venus, the planet most like Earth in terms of mass and density, but at 450 degrees C (842 degrees F) and a surface pressure 100 times greater than Earth's, vastly dissimilar in surface conditions as well as in its topographic relief.
According to data from NASA's 1989 Magellan mission, Venus manifests no evidence of Earth-like plate tectonics, the geological process responsible for causing much of Earth's dynamic topography, including the creation and horizontal movement of lithospheric plates across the planet as well as the cause for the chains of volcanoes and earthquakes observed on Earth. Instead, Venus is predominantly flat and is covered mostly with volcanic flows and few deformed mountain belts.
Lang said the goal of his research is to test two widely held but opposing theories on the geological history of Earth's hot twin sister. One theory is that the planet surface evolved gradually along a non-linear pathway through random occurrences of volcanism. Another proffers that Venus' surface was formed in a more step-wise process with periodic cataclysmic bursts of volcanic activity followed by long periods of inactivity.
"We want to better understand our closest neighbor," Lang said. "We may not colonize or pull resources from Venus, but in understanding Venus, we can better understand our own planet and its place in the solar system. Venus is too hot. Mars is too cold. But Earth is just right. How did the surface of Venus evolve and why did it not follow in the same way as Earth?"
Lang is currently gathering data and, beginning in mid-2013, will work with a Mercyhurst student on geologically mapping volcanic fields on the planet derived from Magellan data. For his part, Thomson will create statistical models to determine orientations of volcanic constructs.
"Once we have determined the stress directions for several clusters of volcanoes across the planet, we can then compare those orientations to see if they match up with the stress orientations predicted by the two competing hypotheses," Lang said.
Will the research resolve the ongoing debate over Venus' history? "Probably not," he said. "That debate may never be resolved until we go there. However, our work should create more data that can be used in the development of more testable hypotheses regarding Venus' history."
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