Science & Technology

Earth's Not Alone — The Solar System Could Be Full of Volcanoes

It's easy to think that our planet is the only one in the solar system with any action happening. We've got liquid oceans, geysers, and volcanoes — but we're not alone in that. Plenty of nearby planets and moons have signs of recent volcanic activity, and some might even be blowing right this very moment.

This infrared image of the southern hemisphere of Jupiter's moon Io was derived from data collected by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard NASA's Juno spacecraft on Dec. 16, 2017, when the spacecraft was about 290,000 miles (470,000 kilometers) from the Jovian moon. In this infrared image, the brighter the color the higher the temperature recorded by JIRAM.

Baby, Io Born This Way

Just like Lady Gaga's colorful outfits, you never know what to expect when you look at Io, Jupiter's explosive and splotchy moon. NASA's Juno spacecraft recently caught sight of a possible new volcano near the moon's south pole during a distant flyby. Juno will get another look on December 16.

Io has hundreds of volcanoes on its surface, and yes, some of them are very active — they may even be erupting as you read this article. The volcanoes are born because Io is caught in some very strong gravity fields between Jupiter and two large moons called Europa and Ganymede. Io is the most volcanically active world in the solar system, and when a spacecraft is nearby, you're bound to see something interesting.

Researchers said the new hot spot is about 200 miles (300 kilometers) away from the nearest one mapped before. "It is difficult to imagine one [hot spot] could travel such a distance and still be considered the same feature," said Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator from the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, in a statement.

Until Juno can get another look in December, who knows what's going on? Io constantly reforms its surface. Tidal forces within the moon's insides create a lot of pressure that erupts as volcanoes. Maybe that hot spot migrated from somewhere else, or maybe it's a new spot altogether. Mapmakers on Io will never be out of work, that's for sure.

Volcanoes Are from Mars, Volcanoes Are Also From Venus

Looking beyond Earth, there's another spot where volcanoes might be active — Mars. But if those volcanoes are ready to blow, they aren't being very obvious about it. NASA has a fleet of spacecraft mapping the surface and checking for atmospheric emissions. There's no sign of anything new happening at the volcanoes. There are spurts of methane in the atmosphere, which could be a sign of volcanic activity. Or then again, methane could be a sign of microbial life. Science is fun and frustrating like that.

But maybe we'll get some more clues soon. NASA's InSight mission is on the way to Mars and will land there on November 26 to dig under the surface in search of heat sources. From there, researchers will learn more about the Red Planet's insides and whether there's any noticeable volcanic stuff happening.

And while the news doesn't talk about Venus as much as Mars, Venus is another planet where volcanoes may or may not be spewing. Back in 2015, scientists with Europe's Venus Express mission were looking at old data after the spacecraft's planned death the year before. They announced they saw hotspots forming and changing within a few days, all on the surface of this lava-caked planet. There's also evidence of atmospheric sulfur dioxide and surface lava activity that might be related to volcanoes. We need another spacecraft out at Venus — like, tomorrow — to check this out.

Even distant Pluto might host some volcanoes, although these ones would be icy. When New Horizons zipped by there in 2015, it spotted a weird mountain called Wright Mons. There it saw red material that doesn't appear to be elsewhere on Pluto. Also, there's only one impact crater on the mountain – which means the surface probably wasn't made too long ago. The cause of the possible eruption? A complete mystery.

This all makes that starry night sky seem a little less cold, don't you think? On distant worlds, volcanoes are erupting. With geological activity comes energy, and possible life. Let's hope our possible neighbors are friendlies.

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Take a journey through our solar system via stunning imagery in "Solar System: A Visual Exploration of the Planets, Moons, and Other Heavenly Bodies that Orbit Our Sun" by Marcus Chown. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell July 24, 2018

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