Venus may once have been more dynamic and Earth-like than previously thought. A study by Brown University researchers has provided evidence that Venus exhibited Earth-like plate tectonics billions of years ago.
The conclusions are based on simulations using atmospheric data from Venus. These simulations indicate that the current composition of Venus' atmosphere and its surface pressure may have evolved due to early plate tectonic activities. This geological process, which is vital to life, consists of continental plates moving, colliding and sliding under each other.
Such tectonic movements on Earth, intensified over billions of years, sculpted continents, mountain ranges, and triggered chemical reactions.
A sharp detour
These reactions played a crucial role in stabilizing the Earth's temperature, paving the way for the development of life. However, Venus's fortunes took a drastic detour, leading to its present-day hostile conditions, where temperatures have risen enough to melt lead.
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A new study challenges the idea that Venus has always had a static single plate, known as a “trailing lid”. The study suggests that Venus, about 4.5 to 3.5 billion years ago, experienced tectonic movements comparable to early Earth, but on a much more limited scale.
Similar sister planets
The study's lead author, Matt Weller, completed the work while he was a postdoctoral researcher at Brown and is now at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
“One of the main takeaways is that we very likely had two planets in the same solar system at the same time that were operating in a plate tectonics mode — the same mode of tectonics that allowed for the life we see on Earth today,” he said. Weller.
The discovery highlights the potential for microbial life on ancient Venus, suggesting that these sister planets were more similar in their early histories than previously thought.
Plate tectonics and habitability
The research not only shapes our understanding of Venus, but also highlights the temporality of plate tectonics and the planet's habitability. Professor Alexander Evans, co-author of the study, noted that the planets may transit between different tectonic states.
“We've been thinking of tectonics in binary terms until now: it's either true or false, and it's been true or false for the lifetime of the planet,” Professor Evans said.
“This shows that planets can move in and out of different tectonic states, and this can actually be quite common.” Earth can be distinguished. This also means that we may have planets that migrate and never leave habitable sites, rather than being permanently inhabited.
It looks beyond the surface
The research began with the broader goal of understanding how exoplanetary atmospheres can be clues to their early history.
Using Venus as a reference, the team soon realized a discrepancy between the simulations based on the assumption of a stagnant lid and the actual atmospheric composition of Venus. The breakthrough came when the model incorporated limited early tectonic motion that reflects the current state of Venus.
“We're still in this paradigm where we use the surfaces of planets to understand their history,” Professor Evans said. “We show for the first time that atmospheres can be the best way to understand some of the ancient history of planets, which is often not preserved on the surface.”
The implications of this research extend beyond Venus. Future NASA DAVINCI missions will measure the atmospheric gases of Venus, which may further strengthen these findings. But the question remains: What caused Venus to stop plate tectonics?
“Venus basically ran out of juice to some extent, and that disrupted the process,” said study co-author Daniel Ybarra, a professor in Brown's Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences.
The details of how this happened could have significant implications for Earth, the researchers said.
“This will be a critical next step in understanding Venus, its evolution and ultimately the fate of Earth,” Weller said. “What conditions would cause us to move on a Venus-like trajectory, and what conditions might allow Earth to remain habitable?”