ESA's Venus Express has measured a highly variable quantity of the volcanic gas sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere of Venus. Scientists must now decide whether this is evidence for active volcanoes on Venus, or linked to a hitherto unknown mechanism affecting the upper atmosphere.
The search for volcanoes is a long-running thread in the exploration of Venus. 'Volcanoes are a key part of a climate system,' says Fred Taylor, a Venus Express Interdisciplinary Scientist from Oxford University. That's because they release gases such as sulphur dioxide into the planet's atmosphere.
On Earth, sulphur compounds do not stay in the atmosphere for long. Instead, they react with the surface of the planet. The same is thought to be true at Venus, although the reactions are much slower, with a time scale of 20 million years.
Some scientists have argued that the large proportion of sulphur dioxide found by previous space missions at Venus is the 'smoking gun' of recent volcanic eruptions. However, others maintain that the eruptions could have happened around 10 million years ago and that the sulphur dioxide remains in the atmosphere because it takes such a long time to react with the surface rocks.
New observations from Venus Express showing rapid variations of sulphur dioxide in the upper atmosphere have revived this debate.