Cryovolcanism: Why study it? What can it teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

True-color image of Enceladus' plumes emanating from its south pole. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / Kevin M. Gill)

Universe Today has had the privilege of spending the last several months venturing into a multitude of scientific disciplines, including impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, solar physics, comets, planetary atmospheres, planetary geophysics, cosmochemistry, meteorites, radio astronomy, extremophiles, organic chemistry, and black holes, and their importance in helping teach scientists and the public about our place in the cosmos.

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Io Has Been Volcanically Active for its Entire History

The Jovian moon Io as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft. The mission's camera caught a view of one of this moon's volcanos erupting. Courtesy: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.
The Jovian moon Io as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft. The mission's camera caught a view of one of this moon's volcanos erupting. Courtesy: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

Jupiter’s moon Io is a volcanic powerhouse. It’s the most geologically active world in the Solar System, sporting more than 400 spouting volcanoes and vents on its surface. Has it always been this way? A team of planetary scientists says yes, and they have the chemical receipts to prove it.

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Volcanoes Were Erupting on Venus in the 1990s

3D model of Venus

Start talking about Venus and immediately my mind goes to those images from the Venera space probes that visited Venus in the 1970’s. They revealed a world that had been scarred by millennia of volcanic activity yet as far as we could tell those volcanoes were dormant. That is, until just now.  Magellan has been mapping the surface of Venus and between 1990 and 1992 had mapped 98% of the surface. Researchers compared two scans of the same area and discovered that there were fresh outflows of molten rock filling a vent crater! There was active volcanism on Venus. 

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Over 100 Million Years Ago, Olympus Mons Had a Massive Landslide

This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows the wrinkled surroundings of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano not only on Mars but in the Solar System. This feature, created by previous landslides and lava-driven rockfalls, is named Lycus Sulci. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin.

While the surface of Mars looks relatively unchanging now, it wasn’t always so. The tallest mountain in the Solar System is Olympus Mons, a giant shield volcano on Mars that reaches 21.9 km (13.6 miles) high, 2.5 times higher than Mount Everest here on Earth. Ancient lava flows surround the volcanic caldera, evidence of an active time.

New images from ESA’s Mars Express show how these lava flows created extremely sharp cliffs, as high as 7 km (4.3 miles) in some areas, which suddenly collapsed in mind-boggling landslides. One of these landslides occurred several 100 million years ago when a chunk of the volcano broke off and spread across the surrounding plains. If we could look back in time and see as it happened, it was certainly a very dramatic and turbulent epoch on Mars.

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Did Powerful Asteroid Impacts Make Venus So Different From Earth?

Artist's impression of a bolide impact on a young Venus. Credit: SwRI

Venus and Earth have several things in common. Both are terrestrial planets composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between a rocky mantle and crust and a metal core. Like Earth, Venus orbits within our Sun’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ), though Venus skirts the inner edge of it. And according to a growing body of evidence, Venus has active volcanoes on its surface that contribute to atmospheric phenomena (like lightning). However, that’s where the similarities end, and some rather stark differences set in.

In addition to Venus’ hellish atmosphere, which is about 100 times as dense as Earth’s and hot enough to melt lead, Venus has a very “youthful” surface. Compared to other bodies in the Solar System (like Mercury, the Moon, and Mars), Venus’ surface retains little evidence of the many bolides impacts it experienced over billions of years. According to new research from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and Yale University, this may result from bolide impacts that provided a high-energy, rejuvenating boost to the planet in its early years.

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Olympus Could Have Been a Giant Volcanic Island in an Ancient Martian Ocean

Olympus Mons, captured by the ESA's Mars Express mission from orbit. Credit: ESA/DLR/FUBerlin/AndreaLuck

Olympus Mons, located at the northwest edge of the Tharsis Montes region on Mars, was appropriately named. Based on readings obtained by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), an instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), this mountain is the tallest in the Solar System, standing 21.9 km (13.6 mi) tall – about two and a half times the height of Mount Everest (8.85 km; 5.5 mi). According to current estimates, this extinct shield volcano formed during Mars’ Hesperian Period (ca. 3.7 to 3 billion years ago), which was characterized by widespread volcanic activity and catastrophic flooding.

This coincides with a period when Mars had a denser atmosphere, a warmer environment, and flowing water on its surface. This included a global ocean that spanned much of the northern hemisphere, known today as the Northern Lowlands, encompassing Olympus Mons. According to a recent study led by researchers from the Centre National de Recherches Scientifique (CNRS), features found on the slopes of Olympus Mons indicate that it could have been a massive volcanic island where volcanic eruptions flowed into the ocean, similar to ones found on Earth.

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The Most Intense Lightning Ever Seen Came From Last Year's Tonga Volcano Eruption

The Tonga Hunga volcanic eruption sent a tsunami across the Pacific. Air pressure disturbances from the tsunami distorted GPS signals. GOES imagery courtesy NOAA,NESDIS.
The Tonga Hunga volcanic eruption as seen by a GOES satellite. Credit: NOAA,NESDIS.

The enormous undersea volcano that erupted in Tonga last year was record-breaking in many regards. It generated the highest-ever recorded volcanic plume, it triggered a sonic boom that circled the globe twice, and was the most powerful natural explosion in more than a century.

Now, scientists studying the eruption say the volcanic plume created record-breaking amounts of volcanic lightning, the most intense lightning rates ever documented in Earth’s atmosphere. While the ash obscured the view, satellites and ground-based radio antennas with specialized instrument could peer through the ash and see every stage of the unfolding eruption. Over 200,000 lightning flashes were detected in the volcanic plume, more than 2,600 flashes every minute.

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Juno Reveals Volcanoes on Io

The Juno spacecraft used its JIRAM (Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper) instrument to capture these images of Jupiter's volcanic moon Io. It captured the four images in sequence to gain different viewing angles of the moon's volcanic activity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

Jupiter’s moon Io is the most volcanic world in the Solar System, with over 400 volcanoes. Some of them eject plumes as high as 500 km (300 mi) above the surface. Its surface is almost entirely shaped by all this volcanic activity, with large regions covered by silicates, sulphur, and sulphur dioxide brought up from the moon’s interior. The intense volcanic activity has created over 100 mountains, and some of them are taller than Mt. Everest.

Io is unique in the Solar System, and the Juno orbiter’s JunoCam captured some new images of Io’s abundant volcanic activity.

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The Tonga Eruption Was So Powerful it Disrupted Satellites Half a World Away

The Tonga eruption in 2022 sent tons of ash and water into the air and sent an atmospheric pressure wave that helped create an equatorial plasma bubble that disrupted satellite communications that depend on the ionosphere. Courtesy of Himawari-8 satellite.
The Tonga eruption in 2022 sent ash and water into the air and created an atmospheric pressure wave that helped create an equatorial plasma bubble that disrupted satellite communications that depend on the ionosphere. Courtesy of Himawari-8 satellite.

Remember the huge Tonga eruption in the South Pacific in January 2022? This underwater volcano sent tons of ash into the air. It also blew 146 teragrams of water into our atmosphere and the effect of the explosion reached space. It also made life very difficult for people on Tonga, wiping out their communications and sending tsunamis across the South Pacific.

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There's a Giant Magma Plume on Mars, Bulging the Surface out Across a Vast Region

Lava flows in Mars' Elysium Planitia region have left a rather good likeness of a woolly mammoth or elephant. The region is known for some of the planet's youngest lavas - this one may formed in the past 100 million years.

Billions of years ago, Mars was a much different place than it is today. Its atmosphere was thicker and warmer, liquid water flowed on its surface, and the planet was geologically active. Due to its lower gravity, this activity led to the largest volcanoes in the Solar System (Olympus Mons and the Thetis Mons region) and the longest, deepest canyon in the world (Valles Marineris). Unfortunately, Mars’ interior began to cool rapidly, its inner core solidified, and geological activity largely stopped. For some time, geologists have believed that Mars was essentially “dead” in the geological sense.

However, recent studies have provided seismic and geophysical evidence that Mars may still be “slightly alive.” In a recent study, scientists from the University of Arizona (ASU) challenged conventional views of Martian geodynamic evolution by discovering evidence of an active mantle plume pushing its way through the crust, causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Combined with some serious marsquakes recorded by NASA’s InSight lander, these finding suggests that there is still some powerful volcanic action beneath the surface of Mars.

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