The JunoCam onboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft continues to provide we Earthbound humans with a steady stream of stunning images of Jupiter. We can’t get enough of the gas giant’s hypnotic, other-worldly beauty. This image of Io passing over Jupiter is the latest one to awaken our sense of wonder.
This image was processed by Kevin Gill, a NASA software engineer who has produced other stunning images of Jupiter.
Jupiter’s moon Io is in stark contrast to the other three Galilean moons. While Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa all appear to have subsurface oceans, Io is a volcanic world, covered with more than 400 active volcanoes. In fact, Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System.
Io’s largest volcano is named Loki, after a God in Norse mythology. It’s the most active and most powerful volcano in the Solar System. Since 1979, we’ve known that it’s active and that it’s both continuous and variable. And since 2002, thanks to a research paper in the Geophysical Research Letters, we’ve known that it erupts regularly.
Jeff Morgenthaler, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, likes to think of himself as an experimental physicist whose laboratory opens to the sky. He has used a comet to measure the ionization lifetime of carbon, is using Io’s atmosphere as a probe of conditions in Jupiter’s magnetosphere and has constructed a small-aperture coronagraph to monitor measure Jupiter’s magnetospheric response to a large volcanic eruption on Io.
What would it be like to be onboard the Cassini orbiter as it made its way around Jupiter and Saturn and their moons? Pretty cool. Now a new video made from Cassini images pieces together parts of that stately journey.
When the Juno spacecraft arrived in orbit around Jupiter in 2016, it became the second spacecraft in history to study Jupiter directly – the first being the Galileo probe, which orbited Jupiter between 1995 and 2003. With every passing orbit (known as a perijove, which take place every 53 days), the spacecraft has revealed more about Jupiter’s atmosphere, weather patterns, and magnetic environment.
In addition, Juno recently discovered something interesting about Jupiter’s closest orbiting moon Io. Based on data collected by its Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument, Juno detected a new heat source close to the south pole of Io that could indicate the presence of a previously undiscovered volcano. This is just the latest discovery made by the probe during its mission, which NASA recently extended to 2021.
The infrared data was collected on Dec. 16th, 2017, when the Juno spacecraft was about 470,000 km (290,000 mi) away from Io. As Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator from the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Rome, explained in a recent NASA press release:
“The new Io hotspot JIRAM picked up is about 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the nearest previously mapped hotspot. We are not ruling out movement or modification of a previously discovered hot spot, but it is difficult to imagine one could travel such a distance and still be considered the same feature.”
Aside from Juno and Galileo, many NASA missions have visited or passed through the Jovian System in the past few decades. These have including the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions in 1973/74, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions in 1979, and the Cassini and New Horizons missions in 2000 and 2007, respectively. Each of these missions managed to snap pictures of the Jovians moons on their way to the outer Solar System.
Combined with ground-based observations, scientists have accounted for over 150 volcanoes on the surface of Io so far, with estimates claiming there could over 400 in total. Since it entered Jupiter’s orbit on July 4th, 2016, the Juno probe has traveled nearly 235 million km (146 million mi) from one pole to other. On July 16th, Juno will conduct its 13th perijove maneuver, once again passing low over Jupiter’s cloud tops at a distance of about 3,400 km (2,100 mi).
During these flybys, Juno probes beneath the upper atmosphere to study the planet’s auroras to learn more about it’s structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. By shedding light on these characteristics, the Juno probe will also teach us more about the planet’s origins and evolution. This in turn will teach scientists a great deal more about the formation and evolution of our Solar System, and perhaps how life began here.
Since it arrived in orbit around Jupiter in July of 2016, the Juno mission has been sending back vital information about the gas giant’s atmosphere, magnetic field and weather patterns. With every passing orbit – known as perijoves, which take place every 53 days – the probe has revealed things about Jupiter that scientists will rely on to learn more about its formation and evolution.
Interestingly, some of the most recent information to come from the mission involves how two of its moons affect one of Jupiter’s most interesting atmospheric phenomenon. As they revealed in a recent study, an international team of researchers discovered how Io and Ganymede leave “footprints” in the planet’s aurorae. These findings could help astronomers to better understand both the planet and its moons.
Much like aurorae here on Earth, Jupiter’s aurorae are produced in its upper atmosphere when high-energy electrons interact with the planet’s powerful magnetic field. However, as the Juno probe recently demonstrated using data gathered by Ultraviolet Spectrograph (UVS) and Jovian Energetic Particle Detector Instrument (JEDI), Jupiter’s magnetic field is significantly more powerful than anything we see on Earth.
In addition to reaching power levels 10 to 30 times greater than anything higher than what is experienced here on Earth (up to 400,000 electron volts), Jupiter’s norther and southern auroral storms also have oval-shaped disturbances that appear whenever Io and Ganymede pass close to the planet. As they explain in their study:
“A northern and a southern main auroral oval are visible, surrounded by small emission features associated with the Galilean moons. We present infrared observations, obtained with the Juno spacecraft, showing that in the case of Io, this emission exhibits a swirling pattern that is similar in appearance to a von Kármán vortex street.”
A Von Kármán vortex street, a concept in fluid dynamics, is basically a repeating pattern of swirling vortices caused by a disturbance. In this case, the team found evidence of a vortex streaming for hundreds of kilometers when Io passed close to the planet, but which then disappeared as the moon moved farther away from the planet.
The team also found two spots in the auroral belt created by Ganymede, where the extended tail from the main auroral spots eventually split in two. While the team was not sure what causes this split, they venture that it could be caused by interaction between Ganymede and Jupiter’s magnetic field (since Ganymede is the only Jovian moon to have its own magnetic field).
These features, they claim, suggest that magnetic interactions between Jupiter and Ganymede are more complex than previously thought. They also indicate that neither of the footprints were where they expected to find them, which suggests that models of the planet’s magnetic interactions with its moons may be in need of revision.
Studying Jupiter’s magnetic storms is one of the primary goals of the Juno mission, as is learning more about the planet’s interior structure and how it has evolved over time. In so doing, astronomers hope to learn more about how the Solar System came to be. NASA also recently extended the mission to 2021, giving it three more years to gather data on these mysteries.
And be sure to enjoy this video of the Juno mission, courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
Volcanic activity on Io was discovered by Voyager 1 imaging scientist Linda Morabito. She spotted a little bump on Io’s limb while analyzing a Voyager image and thought at first it was an undiscovered moon. Moments later she realized that wasn’t possible — it would have been seen by earthbound telescopes long ago. Morabito and the Voyager team soon came to realize they were seeing a volcanic plume rising 190 miles (300 km) off the surface of Io. It was the first time in history that an active volcano had been detected beyond the Earth. For a wonderful account of the discovery, click here.
Today, we know that Io boasts more than 130 active volcanoes with an estimated 400 total, making it the most volcanically active place in the Solar System. Juno used its Jovian Infrared Aurora Mapper (JIRAM) to take spectacular photographs of Io during Perijove 7 last July, when we were all totally absorbed by close up images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.
Juno’s Io looks like it’s on fire. Because JIRAM sees in infrared, a form of light we sense as heat, it picked up the signatures of at least 60 hot spots on the little moon on both the sunlight side (right) and the shadowed half. Like all missions to the planets, Juno’s cameras take pictures in black and white through a variety of color filters. The filtered views are later combined later by computers on the ground to create color pictures. Our featured image of Io was created by amateur astronomer and image processor Roman Tkachenko, who stacked raw images from this data set to create the vibrant view.
Io’s hotter than heck with erupting volcano temperatures as high as 2,400° F (1,300° C). Most of its lavas are made of basalt, a common type of volcanic rock found on Earth, but some flows consist of sulfur and sulfur dioxide, which paints the scabby landscape in unique colors.
This five-frame sequence taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on March 1, 2007 captures the giant plume from Io’s Tvashtar volcano.
Located more than 400 million miles from the Sun, how does a little orb only a hundred miles larger than our Moon get so hot? Europa and Ganymede are partly to blame. They tug on Io, causing it to revolve around Jupiter in an eccentric orbit that alternates between close and far. Jupiter’s powerful gravity tugs harder on the moon when its closest and less so when it’s farther away. The “tug and release”creates friction inside the satellite, heating and melting its interior. Io releases the pent up heat in the form of volcanoes, hot spots and massive lava flows.
Jupiter may be the largest planet in the Solar System with a diameter 11 times that of Earth, but it pales in comparison to its own magnetosphere. The planet’s magnetic domain extends sunward at least 3 million miles (5 million km) and on the back side all the way to Saturn for a total of 407 million miles or more than 400 times the size of the Sun.
If we had eyes adapted to see the Jovian magnetosphere at night, its teardrop-like shape would easily extend across several degrees of sky! No surprise then that Jove’s magnetic aura has been called one of the largest structures in the Solar System.
Io, Jupiter’s innermost of the planet’s four large moons, orbits deep within this giant bubble. Despite its small size — about 200 miles smaller than our own Moon — it doesn’t lack in superlatives. With an estimated 400 volcanoes, many of them still active, Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. In the moon’s low gravity, volcanoes spew sulfur, sulfur dioxide gas and fragments of basaltic rock up to 310 miles (500 km) into space in beautiful, umbrella-shaped plumes.
Once aloft, electrons whipped around by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field strike the neutral gases and ionize them (strips off their electrons). Ionized atoms and molecules (ions) are no longer neutral but possess a positive or negative electric charge. Astronomers refer to swarms of ionized atoms as plasma.
Jupiter rotates rapidly, spinning once every 9.8 hours, dragging the whole magnetosphere with it. As it spins past Io, those volcanic ions get caught up and dragged along for the ride, rotating around the planet in a ring called the Io plasma torus. You can picture it as a giant donut with Jupiter in the “hole” and the tasty, ~8,000-mile-thick ring centered on Io’s orbit.
That’s not all. Jupiter’s magnetic field also couples Io’s atmosphere to the planet’s polar regions, pumping Ionian ions through two “pipelines” to the magnetic poles and generating a powerful electric current known as the Io flux tube. Like firefighters on fire poles, the ions follow the planet’s magnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere, where they strike and excite atoms, spawning an ultraviolet-bright patch of aurora within the planet’s overall aurora. Astronomers call it Io’s magnetic footprint. The process works in reverse, too, spawning auroras in Io’s tenuous atmosphere.
Io is the main supplier of particles to Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Some of the same electrons stripped from sulfur and oxygen atoms during an earlier eruption return to strike atoms shot out by later blasts. Round and round they go in a great cycle of microscopic bombardment! The constant flow of high-speed, charged particles in Io’s vicinity make the region a lethal environment not only for humans but also for spacecraft electronics, the reason NASA’s Juno probe gets the heck outta there after each perijove or closest approach to Jupiter.
But there’s much to glean from those plasma streams. Astronomy PhD student Phillip Phipps and assistant professor of astronomy Paul Withers of Boston University have hatched a plan to use the Juno spacecraft to probe Io’s plasma torus to indirectly study the timing and flow of material from Io’s volcanoes into Jupiter’s magnetosphere. In a paper published on Jan. 25, they propose using changes in the radio signal sent by Juno as it passes through different regions of the torus to measure how much stuff is there and how its density changes over time.
The technique is called a radio occultation. Radio waves are a form of light just like white light. And like white light, they get bent or refracted when passing through a medium like air (or plasma in the case of Io). Blue light is slowed more and experiences the most bending; red light is slowed less and refracted least, the reason red fringes a rainbow’s outer edge and blue its inner. In radio occultations, refraction results in changes in frequency caused by variations in the density of plasma in Io’s torus.
The best spacecraft for the attempt is one with a polar orbit around Jupiter, where it cuts a clean cross-section through different parts of the torus during each orbit. Guess what? With its polar orbit, Juno’s the probe for the job! Its main mission is to map Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields, so an occultation experiment jives well with mission goals. Previous missions have netted just two radio occultations of the torus, but Juno could potentially slam dunk 24.
Because the paper was intended to show that the method is a feasible one, it remains to be seen whether NASA will consider adding a little extra credit work to Juno’s homework. It seems a worthy and practical goal, one that will further enlighten our understanding of how volcanoes create aurorae in the bizarre electric and magnetic environment of the largest planet.
Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at the largest of the Jovian Moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto!
In 1610, Galileo Galilei became the first astronomer to discover the large moons of Jupiter, using a telescope of his own design. As time passed, these moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – would collectively come to be referred to as the Galilean Moons, in honor of their discoverer. And with the birth of space exploration, what we’ve come to know about these satellites has fascinated and inspired us.
For example, ever since the Pioneer and Voyager probes passed through the system decades ago, scientists have suspected that moons like Europa might be our best bet for finding life in our Solar System beyond Earth. And because of the presence of water ice, interior oceans, minerals, and organic molecules, it has been speculated that humanity might establish colonies on one or more of these worlds someday.
Examples in Fiction:
The concept of a colonized Jovian system is featured in many science fiction publications. For instance, Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Farmer in the Sky (1953) centers on a teenage boy and his family moving to Ganymede. The moon is in the process of being terraformed in the story, and farmers are being recruited to help turn it into an agricultural colony.
In the course of the story, it is mentioned that there are also efforts to introduce an atmosphere on Callisto. Many of his Heinlein’s other novels include passing mentions of a colony on Ganymede, including The Rolling Stones (1952), Double Star (1956), I Will Fear No Evil (1970), and the posthumously-written Variable Star (2006).
In 1954, Poul Anderson published a novella titled The Snows of Ganymede(1954). In this story, a party of terraformers visit a settlement on Ganymede called X, which was established two centuries earlier by a group of American religious fanatics.
In Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series, the moon of Europa plays a central role. In 2010: Odyssey Two(1982) an ancient race of advanced aliens are turning the moon into a habitable body by converting Jupiter into a second sun. The warmth of this dwarf star (Lucifer) causes the surface ice on Europa to melt, and the life forms that are evolving underneath are able to emerge.
In 2061: Odyssey Three, Clarke also mentions how Lucifer’s warmth has caused Ganymede’s surface to partially sublimate, creating a large equatorial lake. Isaac Asimov also used the moons of Jupiter in his stories. In the short stories “Not Final!” (1941) and “Victory ‘Unintentional'” (1942), a conflict arises between humans living on Ganymede and the inhabitants of Jupiter.
In Philip K. Dick’s short-story The Mold of Yancy (1955), Callisto is home to a colony where the people conform to the dicates of Yancy, a public commentator who speaks to them via public broadcasts. In Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix (1985), Europa is inhabited by a faction of genetically-engineered posthumans which are vying for control of the Solar System.
Alastair Reynolds’s short story “A Spy in Europa” depicts colonies built on the underside of Europa’s icy surface. Meanwhile, a race of genetically-altered humans (called the “Denizens”) are created to live in the subsurface ocean, close to the core-mantle boundary where hydrothermal vents keep the water warm and the native life forms live.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels Galileo’s Dream (2009) and 2312 (2012) feature colonies on Io, where settlements are adapted to deal with the volcanically active, hostile surface. The former novel is partly set on Callisto, where a massive city called Valhalla is built around the concentric rings of the moon’s giant crater (also mentioned in 2312).
In Robinson’s The Memory of Whiteness (1985), the protagonists visit Europa, which hosts large human colonies who live around pools of melted ice. And in his novel Blue Mars (1996), Robinson makes a passing description of a flourishing colony on Callisto.
Since the Voyager probes passed through the Jovian system, several proposals have been made for crewed missions to Jupiter’s moons and even the creation of settlements. For instance, in 1994, the private spaceflight venture known as the Artemis Project was established with the intent of colonizing the Moon in the 21st century.
However, in 1997, they also drafted plans to colonize Europa, which called for igloos to be established on the surface. These would serve as based for scientists who then drill down into the Europan ice crust and explore the sub-surface ocean. This plan also discussed the possible use of “air pockets” in the ice sheet for long-term human habitation.
In 2003, NASA produced a study called Revolutionary Concepts for Human Outer Planet Exploration (HOPE) which addressed future exploration of the Solar System. Because of its distance from Jupiter, and therefore low exposure to radiation, the target destination in this study was the moon Callisto.
The plan called for operations to begin in 2045. These would begin with the creation of a base on Callisto, where science teams would be able to teleoperate a robotic submarine that would be used to explore Europa’s internal ocean. These science teams would also excavate surface samples near their landing site on Callisto.
Last, but not least, the expedition to Callisto would establish a reusable surface habitat where water ice could be harvested and converted into rocket fuel. This base could therefore serve as a resupply base for all future exploitation missions in the Jovian system.
Also in 2003, NASA reported that a manned mission to Callisto might be possible in the 2040s. According to a joint-study released by the Glenn Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, this mission would rely on a ship equipped with Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NEP) and artificial gravity, which would transport a crew on a 5-year mission to Callisto to establish a base.
In his book Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (1999), Robert Zubrin advocated mining the atmospheres of the outer planets – including Jupiter – to obtain Helium-3 fuel. A base on one or more of the Galilean moons would be necessary for this. NASA has also speculated on this, citing how it could yield limitless supplies of fuel for fusion reactors here on Earth and anywhere else in the Solar System where colonies exist.
In October of 2012, Elon Musk unveiled his concept for an Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), which was central to his long-term goal of colonizing Mars. At the time, Musk stated that the first unmanned flight of the Mars transport spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT mission departing in 2024.
In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and estimated costs. This system, which was originally intended to transport settlers to Mars, had evolved in its role to transport human beings to more distant locations in the Solar System – including Europa and other Jovian moons.
Establishing colonies on the Galilean moons has many potential benefits for humanity. For one, the Jovian system is incredibly rich in terms of volatiles – which include water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia ices – as well as organic molecules. In addition, it is believed that Jupiter’s moons also contain massive amounts of liquid water.
For example, volume estimates placed on Europa’s interior ocean suggest that it may contain as much as 3 × 1018 m3 – three quadrillion cubic kilometers, or 719.7 trillion cubic miles – of water. This is slightly more than twice the combined volume of all of Earth’s oceans. In addition, colonies on the moons of Jupiter could enable missions to Jupiter itself, where hydrogen and helium-3 could be harvested as nuclear fuel.
Colonies established on Europa and Ganymede would also allow for multiple exploration missions to be mounted to the interior oceans that these moons are believed to have. Given that these oceans are also thought to be some of the most likely locations for extra-terrestrial life in our Solar System, the ability to examine them up close would be a boon for scientific research.
Colonies on the moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto would also facilitate missions farther out into the Solar System. These colonies could serve as stopover points and resupply bases for missions heading to and from the Cronian system (Saturn’s system of moons) where additional resources could be harvested.
In short, colonies in the Jovian system would provide humanity with access to abundant resources and immense research opportunities. The chance to grow as a species, and become a post-scarcity one at that, are there; assuming that all the challenges can be overcome.
And of course, these challenges are great in size and many in number. They include, but are not limited to, radiation, the long-term effects of lower gravity, transportation issues, lack of infrastructure, and of course, the sheer cost involved. Considering the hazard radiation poses to exploration, it is appropriate to deal with this aspect first.
Io and Europa, being the closest Galileans to Jupiter, receive the most radiation of any of these moons. This is made worse by the fact that neither have a protective magnetic field and very tenuous atmospheres. As such, Io’s surface receives an average of about 3,600 rems per day, while Europa receives about 540 per day.
For comparison, people here on Earth are exposed to less than 1 rem a day (0.62 for those living in developed nations). Exposure to 500 rems a day is likely to be fatal, and exposure to roughly 75 in a period of a few days is enough to cause severe health problems and radiation poisoning.
Ganymede is the only Galilean moon (and only non-gas giant body other than Earth) to have a magnetosphere. However, it is still overpowered by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. On average, the moon receives about 8 rads of radiation per day, which is the equivalent of what the surface of Mars is exposed to in an average year.
Only Callisto is far enough from Jupiter that it is not dominated by its magnetic environment. Here, radiation levels only reach about 0.01 rems per day, just a fraction of what we are exposed to here on Earth. However, its distance from Jupiter means that it experiences its fair share of problems as well (not the least of which is a lack of tidal heating in its interior).
Another major issue is the long-term effects the lower gravity on these moons would have on human health. On the Galilean moons, the surface gravity ranges from 0.126 g (for Callisto ) to 0.183 g (for Io). This is comparable to the Moon (0.1654 g), but substantially less than Mars (0.376 g). And while the effects of low-g are not well-understood, it is known that the long-term effect of microgravity include loss of bone density and muscle degeneration.
Compared to other potential locations for colonization, the Jovian system is also very far from Earth. As such, transporting crews and all the heavy equipment necessary to build a colony would be very time-consuming, as would missions where resources were being transported to and from the Jovian moons.
To give you a sense of how long it would take, let’s consider some actual missions to Jupiter. The first spacecraft to travel from Earth to Jupiter was NASA’s Pioneer 10 probe, which launched on March 3rd, 1972, and reached the Jupiter system on December 3, 1973 – 640 days (1.75 or years) of flight time.
Pioneer 11 made the trip in 606 days, but like its predecessor, it was simply passing through the system on its way to the Outer planets. Similarly, the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, which were also passing through the system, took 546 days and 688 days, respectively. For direct missions, like the Galileo probe and the recent Juno mission, the travel time was even longer.
In the case of Galileo, the probe left Earth on October 18th, 1989, and arrived at Jupiter on December 7th, 1995. In other words, it took 6 years, 1 month, and 19 days to make it to Jupiter from Earth without flying by. Juno, on the other hand, launched from Earth on Aug. 5th, 2011, and achieved orbit around Jupiter on July 5th, 2016 – 1796 days, or just under 5 years.
And, it should be noted, these were uncrewed missions, which involved only a robotic probe and not a vessel large enough to accommodate large crews, supplies and heavy equipment. As a result, colony ships would have to be much larger an heavier, and would require advanced propulsion systems – like nuclear-thermal/nuclear-electr ic engines – to ensure they made the trip in a reasonable amount of time.
Missions to and from the Jovian moons would also require bases between Earth and Jupiter in order to provide refueling and resupplying, and cut down on the costs of individual missions. This would mean that permanent outposts would need to be established on the Moon, Mars, and most likely in the Asteroid Belt before any missions to Jupiter’s moons were considered feasible or cost-effective.
These last two challenges raise the issue of cost. Between building ships that have the ability to make the trip to Jupiter in a fair amount of time, established the bases needed to support them, and the cost of establishing the colonies themselves, the colonization of the Jovian moons would be incredibly expensive! Combined with the hazards of doing so, one has to wonder if its even worth it.
On the other hand, in the context of space exploration and colonization, the idea of establishing permanent human outposts on Jupiter’s moons makes sense. All of the challenges can be addressed, provided the proper precautions are taken and the right kind of resources are committed. And while it will have to wait until after similar colonies/bases are established on the Moon and Mars, it is not a bad idea as far as “next steps” go.
With colonies on any of the Galilean moons, humanity will have a foothold in the outer Solar System, a stopover point for future missions to Saturn and beyond, and access to abundant resources. Again, it all comes down to how much we are willing to spend.
A volcano is an impressive sight. When they are dormant, they loom large over everything on the landscape. When they are active, they are a destructive force of nature that is without equal, raining fire and ash down on everything in site. And during the long periods when they are not erupting, they can also be rather beneficial to the surrounding environment.
But just what causes volcanoes? When it comes to our planet, they are the result of active geological forces that have shaped the surface of the Earth over the course of billions of years. And interestingly enough, there are plenty of examples of volcanoes on other bodies within our Solar System as well, some of which put those on Earth to shame!
By definition, a volcano is a rupture in the Earth’s (or another celestial body’s) crust that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber located beneath the surface. The term is derived from Vulcano, a volcanically-active island located of the coast of Italy who’s name in turn comes from the Roman god of fire (Vulcan).
On Earth, volcanoes are the result of the action between the major tectonic plates. These sections of the Earth’s crust are rigid, but sit atop the relatively viscous upper mantle. The hot molten rock, known as magma, is forced up to the surface – where it becomes lava. In short, volcanoes are found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging – such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge or the Pacific Ring of Fire – which causes magma to be forced to the surface.
Volcanoes can also form where there is stretching and thinning of the crust’s interior plates, such as in the the East African Rift and the Rio Grande Rift in North America. Volcanism can also occur away from plate boundaries, where upwelling magma is forced up into brittle sections of the crust, forming volcanic islands – such as the Hawaiian islands.
Erupting volcanoes pose many hazards, and not just to the surrounding countryside. In their immediate vicinity, hot, flowing lava can cause extensive damage to the environment, property, and endanger lives. However, volcanic ash can cause far-reaching damage, raining sulfuric acid, disrupting air travel, and even causing “volcanic winters” by obscuring the Sun (thus triggering local crop failures and famines).
Types of Volcanoes:
There are four major types of volcanoes – cinder cone, composite and shield volcanoes, and lava domes. Cinder cones are the simplest kind of volcano, which occur when magma is ejected from a volcanic vent. The ejected lava rains down around the fissure, forming an oval-shaped cone with a bowl-shaped crater on top. They are typically small, with few ever growing larger than about 300 meters (1,000 feet) above their surroundings.
Composite volcanoes (aka. stratovolcanoes) are formed when a volcano conduit connects a subsurface magma reservoir to the Earth’s surface. These volcanoes typically have several vents that cause magma to break through the walls and spew from fissures on the sides of the mountain as well as the summit.
These volcanoes are known for causing violent eruptions. And thanks to all this ejected material, these volcanoes can grow up to thousands of meters tall. Examples include Mount Rainier (4,392 m; 14,411 ft), Mount Fuji (3,776 m; 12,389 ft), Mount Cotopaxi (5,897 m; 19,347 ft) and Mount Saint Helens (2,549 mm; 8,363 ft).
Shield volcanoes are so-named because of their large, broad surfaces. With these types of volcanoes, the lava that pours forth is thin, allowing it to travel great distances down the shallow slopes. This lava cools and builds up slowly over time, with hundreds of eruptions creating many layers. They are therefore not likely to be catastrophic. Some of the best known examples are those that make up the Hawaiian Islands, especially Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
Volcanic or lava domes are created by small masses of lava which are too viscous to flow very far. Unlike shield volcanoes, which have low-viscosity lava, the slow-moving lava simply piles up over the vent. The dome grows by expansion over time, and the mountain forms from material spilling off the sides of the growing dome. Lava domes can explode violently, releasing a huge amount of hot rock and ash.
Volcanoes can also be found on the ocean floor, known as submarine volcanoes. These are often revealed through the presence of blasting steam and rocky debris above the ocean’s surface, though the pressure of the ocean’s water can often prevent an explosive release.
In these cases, lava cools quickly on contact with ocean water, and forms pillow-shaped masses on the ocean floor (called pillow lava). Hydrothermal vents are also common around submarine volcano, which can support active and peculiar ecosystems because of the energy, gases and minerals they release. Over time, the formations created by submarine volcanoes may become so large that they become islands.
Volcanoes can also developed under icecaps, which are known as subglacial volcanoes. In these cases, flat lava flows on top of pillow lava, which results from lava quickly cooling upon contact with ice. When the icecap melts, the lava on top collapses, leaving a flat-topped mountain. Very good examples of this type of volcano can be seen in Iceland and British Columbia, Canada.
Examples on Other Planets:
Volcanoes can be found on many bodies within the Solar System. Examples include Jupiter’s moon Io, which periodically experiences volcanic eruptions that reach up to 500 km (300 mi) into space. This volcanic activity is caused by friction or tidal dissipation produced in Io’s interior, which is responsible for melting a significant amount of Io’s mantle and core.
It’s colorful surface (orange, yellow, green, white/grey, etc.) shows the presence of sulfuric and silicate compounds, which were clearly deposited by volcanic eruptions. The lack of impact craters on its surface, which is uncommon on a Jovian moon, is also indicative of surface renewal.
Mars has also experienced intense volcanic activity in its past, as evidenced by Olympus Mons – the largest volcano in the Solar System. While most of its volcanic mountains are extinct and collapsed, the Mars Express spacecraft observed evidence of more recent volcanic activity, suggesting that Mars may still be geologically active.
Much of Venus’ surface has been shaped by volcanic activity as well. While Venus has several times the number of Earth’s volcanoes, they were believed to all be extinct. However, there is a multitude of evidence that suggests that there may still be active volcanoes on Venus which contribute to its dense atmosphere and runaway Greenhouse Effect.
For instance, during the 1970s, multiple Soviet Venera missions conducted surveys of Venus. These missions obtained evidence of thunder and lightning within the atmosphere, which may have been the result of volcanic ash interacting with the atmosphere. Similar evidence was gathered by the ESA’s Venus Express probe in 2007.
This same mission observed transient localized infrared hot spots on the surface of Venus in 2008 and 2009, specifically in the rift zone Ganis Chasma – near the shield volcano Maat Mons. The Magellan probe also noted evidence of volcanic activity from this mountain during its mission in the early 1990s, using radar-sounding to detect ash flows near the summit.
In addition to “hot volcanoes” that spew molten rock, there are also cryovolcanoes (aka. “cold volcanoes”). These types of volcanoes involve volatile compounds – i.e. water, methane and ammonia – instead of lava breaking through the surface. They have been observed on icy bodies in the Solar System where liquid erupts from ocean’s hidden in the moon’s interior.
For instance, Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is known to have an interior ocean, is believed to experiences cryovolcanism. The earliest evidence for this had to do with its smooth and young surface, which points towards endogenic resurfacing and renewal. Much like hot magma, water and volatiles erupt onto the surface where they then freeze to cover up impact craters and other features.
In addition, plumes of water were observed in 2012 and again in 2016 using the Hubble Space Telescope. These intermittent plumes were observed on both occasions to be coming in the southern region of Europa, and were estimated to be reach up to 200 km (125 miles) before depositing water ice and material back onto the surface.
In 2005, the Cassini-Huygens mission detected evidence of cryovolcanism on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus. In the former case, the probe used infrared imaging to penetrate Titan’s dense clouds and detect signs of a 30 km (18.64 mi) formation, which was believed to be caused by the upwelling of hydrocarbon ices beneath the surface.
On Enceladus, cryovolcanic activity has been confirmed by observing plumes of water and organic molecules being ejected from the moon’s south pole. These plumes are are thought to have originated from the moon’s interior ocean, and are composed mostly of water vapor, molecular nitrogen, and volatiles (such as methane, carbon dioxide and other hydrocarbons).
In 1989, the Voyager 2 spacecraft observed cryovolcanoes ejecting plumes of water ammonia and nitrogen gas on Neptune’s moon Triton. These nitrogen geysers were observed sending plumes of liquid nitrogen 8 km (5 mi) above the surface of the moon. The surface is also quite young, which was seen as indication of endogenic resurfacing. It is also theorized that cryovolcanism may also be present on the Kuiper Belt Object Quaoar.
Here on Earth, volcanism takes the form of hot magma being pushed up through the Earth’s silicate crust due to convention in the interior. However, this kind of activity is present on all planet that formed from silicate material and minerals, and where geological activity or tidal stresses are known to exist. But on other bodies, it consists of cold water and materials from the interior ocean being forced through to the icy surface.
Today, our knowledge of volcanism (and the different forms it can take) is the result of improvements in both the field of geology, as well as space exploration. The more we learn of about other planets, the more we are able to see startling similarities and contrasts with our own (and vice versa).