MadSci Network: Astronomy

Re: How does Venus and all other inner planets loose internal heat?

Date: Tue Mar 2 22:45:07 1999
Posted By: Matthew Buynoski, Senior Member Technical Staff,Advanced Micro Devices
Area of science: Astronomy
ID: 919660752.As

Let's take the Earth as our has the most data available.

Heat in the interior of the planet arises from two causes:

    a. The potential energy released during initial formation.
	b. The decay of radioactive elements

This heat is sufficient to create what are known as convection currents in 
the body of the planet. In the Earth, there is a solid nickel-iron core 
surrounded  by a liquid nickel-iron core, then the largely magnesium 
silicate mantle which is solid. Even though solid (due to the enormous 
pressure), the mantle is quite hot and thus rather plastic for solid rock.
This allows, especially over long time periods, for a convection current
system to exist within the mantle. That is, the rock heats up down by the
core, and then rises toward the top of the mantle; once at the top, it 
moves sideways under the crust (to which it loses heat) and eventually 
descends back down.

Where the mantle rises, it pulls apart the crust of the earth. This process 
is almost entirely hidden deep under the oceans at what are called mid-
ocean trenches. At certain locations (Iceland is by far the largest) it 
does come into view at the surface.  Because the mantle plume pulls apart
the crust, new rock erupts to fill the crack. This is volcanism, by 
definition.  Once the new crust is exposed to the ocean or air, it rapidly
cools, heating the water or air, and solidifies. Eventually, the crust
slides down again, in what are called subduction zones. As it does so, the
relatively water-laden crustal rock, which also drags down lighter 
sediments eroded from the continents, is reheated. It melts fairly readily,
and because of its relatively low density (for rock, anyway), rises  back 
toward the surface and again we get volcanism, this time forming island 
arcs (Indonesia, the Aleutians, and the Japanese islands are three 

Once the descending old crust has been stripped of its volatiles, it sinks
further down into the mantle and melts away back into it, thus completing
the cycle.

As to the other planets, I must admit I know less.  Mercury, which is 
pretty small, may not have had convective volcanism of this type. Or, 
evidence of it may have been obliterated by later impact events. Venus
seems to have some evidence, but it's far from clear that it behaves like
the Earth does. Mars has certainly had volcanism (the planet has the 
largest volcano in the solar system) but again, the small size of the 
planet may not have allowed convection currents. Or, perhaps it did long
ago but not for some billions of years. 

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