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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A sleeping giant of a volcano woke up this past week on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mauna Loa, which last erupted in the early 1980s, has been rattling the island with earthquakes for weeks. Finally, on November 27th, the mountain opened up. Not only did residents see this eruption, but NASA and NOAA satellites captured an infrared view of it.
Is there anything good about volcanoes? They can be violent, dangerous, and unpredictable. For modern humans, volcanoes are mostly an inconvenience, sometimes an intriguing visual display, and occasionally deadly.
But when there’s enough of them, and when they’re powerful and prolonged, they can kill the planet that hosts them.
Fifty years ago, NASA and the Soviet space program conducted the first sample-return missions from the Moon. This included lunar rocks brought back to Earth by the Apollo astronauts and those obtained by robotic missions that were part of the Soviet Luna Program. The analysis of these rocks revealed a great deal about the Moon’s composition, formation, and geological history. In particular, scientists concluded that the rocks were formed from volcanic eruptions more than three billion years ago.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in lunar exploration as NASA and other space agencies have sent robotic missions to the Moon (in preparation for crewed missions). For instance, China has sent multiple orbiters, landers, and rovers to the Moon as part of the Chang’e program, including sample-return missions. A new study led by planetary scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) analyzed samples obtained by the Chang’e-5 rover dated to two billion years ago. Their research could provide valuable insight into how young volcanism shaped the lunar surface.