Take a look at Venus in even the most powerful telescope, and all you’ll see is clouds. There are no surface features visible at all. It wasn’t until the last few decades, when radar equipped spacecraft arrived at Venus, that scientists finally had a chance to study the geology of Venus in great detail.
Spacecraft like NASA’s Magellan mission are equipped with radar instruments that let it penetrate down through the clouds on Venus and reveal the surface below. Magellan found that the surface of Venus does have many impact craters and evidence of past volcanism. But the total number of craters showed that the surface of Venus is actually pretty young. It’s likely that some catastrophic event resurfaced Venus about 300-500 million years ago, wiping out old craters and volcanoes.
Unlike Earth, Venus doesn’t have plate tectonics. It’s possible that the planet had them in the ancient past, but rising temperatures shut them down and helped the planet go into a runaway greenhouse cycle. Carbon on Earth is trapped by plants, and is then recycled into the Earth through plate tectonics. But on Venus, the tectonic system shut down, so carbon was able to build up to tremendous levels. This cycle thickened the atmosphere, raised temperatures with its greenhouse effect, releasing more carbon, raising temperatures even higher… etc.
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There are volcanoes on Venus; scientists have identified more than 100 isolated shield volcanoes. And there are thousands and maybe even millions of smaller volcanoes less than 20 km across. Many of these have a strange dome-shaped structure, believed to have formed when plumes of magma thrust the crust upward and then collapsed.
Scientists can’t be exactly sure what the internal structure of Venus is like, but based on its density, Venus is probably similar to Earth in composition. It’s believed to have a solid or liquid core of metal 3,000 km across. This is surrounded by a mantle of rock 3,000 km thick, and then a thin crust of solid rock about 50 km thick.
One big difference between Earth and Venus is the lack of a planetary magnetic field at Venus. It’s believed that the Earth’s magnetic field is driven by the convection of liquid metal at the Earth’s core. If true, it means that Venus probably doesn’t have the same kind of temperature differences at its core, and lacks the convection to sustain a planetary magnetic field.
We have written many articles about Venus for Universe Today. Here’s an article about Venus’ wet, volcanic past, and here’s an article about how Venus might have had continents and oceans in the ancient past.
We have recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast that’s only about planet Venus. Listen to it here, Episode 50: Venus.