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Venus surprisingly active beneath the surface, scientists say

The jury is still out on tiny aliens floating above our neighboring planet, but the planet itself might be a little jittery.

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A false-color radar view of Lavinia Planitia, one of the lowland regions on Venus where blocks of the planet's crust seem to be on the move.


NC State University, based upon original NASA/JPL imagery

Something is moving on Venus -- or rather beneath the planet's surface. It's not life, but it does suggest our neighboring world is a little less static than many previously believed.

A team of global researchers analyzed NASA radar images from the Magellan mission to Venus and found big blocks of its lithosphere, or crust, appeared to have moved.

"It's not plate tectonics like on Earth -- there aren't huge mountain ranges being created," North Carolina State University planetary science professor Paul Byrne explained in a statement. "But it is evidence of deformation (movement) due to interior mantle flow, which hasn't been demonstrated on a global scale before." 

Byrne is the lead author on a paper published online Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Earth and the geological turmoil of its interior are a relative rarity in the solar system. Most other worlds like the moon or Mars are thought to largely be frozen in place by a solid outer crust. It's long been assumed Venus is similar.

Venus doesn't host the comparative chaos of Earth's fiery volcanic plumbing, although there may be some such low-level action there. It also lacks our planet's giant subduction zones and the powerful earthquakes they create, but Venus' outer shell still seems to be more mobile than previously thought.

"The mantle inside Venus pushes and pulls on the surface of the planet more strongly than Earth's mantle does," explained Baylor University planetary physicist Peter James, a member of the research team. "These calculations of the driving forces corroborated the discovery of block motion and helped us have a better understanding of how it works."

The scientists saw that large blocks of the Venusian crust seemed to be pulling apart, rubbing together, rotating and sliding past each other. The team likened it to broken slabs of ice moving around the surface of a frozen lake.

"Much of Venus has been volcanically resurfaced over time," Byrne said. "But ... the lithosphere fragmented after those [lava] plains were laid down. This gives us reason to think that some of these blocks may have moved geologically very recently -- perhaps even up to today."

If there is some less dramatic version of Earth's intense geological activity happening on Venus, scientists will soon have a chance to get a closer look at exactly what's happening.

NASA and the European Space Agency are planning to send at least three new missions to Venus to update our imagery of the planet's surface at a much higher resolution.

"I'm particularly excited that these missions will be able to test our key finding that the planet's lowlands have fragmented into jostling crustal blocks," Byrne said. 

As if Venus weren't a horrible enough place, add jostling crustal blocks to its many hazards.

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