What do Astronauts, Twitter, and Kilauea have in Common?
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are watching the plumes of lava spewing out of Kilauea on Hawaii and they have shared the sight on Twitter.
It may not be news to the people of Hawaii that Kilauea is one of, if not the most active volcanoe on Earth, but it has caught the attention of three astronauts at the International Space Station. Cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev and NASA astronauts Ricky Arnold and A.J. (Drew) Feustel, fly under the call sign
"Hawai'i" used to identify them for communications purposes — which is why they initially had their eyes and cameras focused on Hawaii’s Killauea volcano. This volcanic event has become so severe and expansive that astronauts aboard the space station have been able to see the volcanic activity from space, as they've shared on Twitter.
Kilauea is a “weeping” type of volcano that produces
fluid lava but is rarely explosive. However, Kilauea has a history of producing active displays approximately every thirty years. Recently, the volcano's Pu'u 'Ō'ō crater began seeping lava out into the local community after lava levels in the crater started to drop on May 2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey
(USGS). Since this outpour began, over 18 active volcanic fissures have opened up, and many local residents have been forced to evacuate the region.
Of course Kilauea is not the only show in town as planetary scientists are finding volcanoes all over the solar system and even on asteroids.
According to a new study
, published February 1st in the journal Science Advances, revealed interesting new details about the volcanic history of Mars. Thomas Lapen
, first author of the paper and Professor of Geology at the University of Houston, told Astronomy that their analysis of Martian meteorites showed that volcanic activity on Mars has been ongoing since at least 2.4 to 0.15 billion years ago—and likely continues today.
Given that the meteorites Lapen and his group studied came from a single ejection site on Mars, they reveal over 2 billion years of stacked lava flows. The discovery could help scientists decipher more about how often volcanoes erupted on Mars, as well as time periods when they were most active.
Lapen explained that the type of volcanic activity that occurs on Mars is basaltic volcanism
, which is similar to the type of volcanism seen in volcanoes in Hawaii producing fluid lava but rarely explosive.
But Mars isn’t the only extraterrestrial body with volcanoes. Volcanoes—in various forms—are also found on other planets, moons, and even asteroids. Take, for instance, Jupiter’s moon Io, which has active volcanoes that spew gas and melted rock, or Venus, which, according to NASA
, is covered with over 1,000 volcanoes. It’s not yet determined whether these venusian volcanoes are active or not.
Then there’s a whole other type of volcanism, called cryovolcanism
. As NASA explains, cryovolcanoes spew water and gases rather than melted rocks. They dot a number of different bodies in our solar system, including Neptune’s moon Triton and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
According to Dr. Rosaly Lopes, Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, cryovolcanism is a form of volcanism. Volcanism is a process that brings material from the interior to the surface, but in Neptune’s and Enceladus’s case it is not molten rock. Instead, cryovolcanoes occur on bodies with an ocean situated beneath an icy crust. When pressure builds up, it is released in the form of geysers of water mixed with ammonia or methane. Generally, cryovolcanoes are found on bodies in the outer solar system but scientists also believe that cryovolcanism may even have happened on the asteroid / dwarf planet Ceres.
Information about these volcanoes provides scientists with clues about important geological processes. “Volcanism is one of the major, really fundamental processes that shapes the surface of a planet or moon.That shape, according to Dr. Lopes, comes from the interplay of four major processes — volcanism, tectonism, erosion, and impact cratering. Understanding volcanism’s role in shaping a body’s surface provides a crucial clue in understanding more about the geological processes of that planet. For example, if Earth was the only place we had seen volcanism, we might think that volcanism really depends on plate tectonics…But when we look at the other planets, we see that they have or have had volcanism in the past, and there is no plate tectonics.”
While volcanoes can shed light on certain geological processes, there’s another, even more intriguing reason to search for them: they may be indicators of climates suitable for life. Volcanism provides heat and energy, which is essential for life. And cryovolcanism has not only heat, but water—two of the essential ingredients of life. That doesn't mean that every body with cryovolcanism has the necessary conditions to support life, of course. But those planets may not be a bad place to start.
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