Volcanoes in Space


We live on a spectacular, dynamic planet. Geological processes like volcanism and quakes were long thought to be unique to Earth, then again we once thought the planet was flat! As we further our exploration of our solar system and beyond we have witnessed that many other planets display activity from moon quakes to eruptions on distant moons of Jupiter.


In June Venus broke in to mainstream media as the ESA announced they had evidence of current volcanic activity on the second planet from the Sun. Venus’s dense atmosphere has long been blamed on a violent eruptive past, but it was thought that this had long since calmed. Then last month NASA released images of Pluto which suggested recent resurfacing, so where is there volcanic activity within our solar system and how does it compare to activity here on Earth? Here is a basic over view of volcanology with our Solar System other than here on Earth.


Starting with the planet nearest the  Sun with a small, quiet Mercury. When people first glimpsed at the planets scarred surface instantly it was thought that the impact from meteors or asteroids in the past were the most likely cause. Even when the suggestion was made that volcanism could be a cause for at least some of the topography it was said that the planet did not have the volatiles available for such explosions. These ideas were strongly refuted in 2008 when NASA’s MESSENGER mission began to feed back clearer images of the surface then we had before. They showed clear signs of pyroclastic deposit at 51 sites, all of which showed different degrees of erosion indicating they had happened at varying stages in the planets history. There was also evidence of compressional features such thrust faults leading us to belive that Mercury is more geologically active (or at least has been) then we previously thought.


Venus’s surface is scared with more volcanic features than any other planet in our solar system. Its dense, toxic atmosphere is believed to be due to the release of volatiles during its explosive past.Huge shields such as Maat Mons and Sapas Mons have appeared reminiscent of those of Earth such as Muana Loa with composition of lavas most likely to be a fluid basaltic or occasional carbonatite. Although some similarities are there Venus shows no sign of tectonic activity such as the liner volcanic chains or subduction arcs we have here on Earth. Volcanism appears to be limited to upwelling similar to hotspots on Earth evident in the large Hawaiian style shields.

Despite all this evidence of volcanism it appeared to have long since ceased until ESA’s Venus Express completed its 8 year mission getting up close and personal with the planet last year.

Radar imagery detected several hot spots along the surface indicating at the very least younger lava flows then we previously thought. It is still open for debate for the age of such flows or if even an eruption or two are taking place up there while I type. The one thing that Venus Express has proved is that activity has occurred in more recent geological time than we had previously thought.

The Moon

Getting closer to home we have our natural satellite, the Moon. It’s surface separated in to two distinct regions; Lunar highland and maria.  The age of the two regions were hinted at by the amount of impact scaring. The older the rock the more impact craters tend to cover its surface; the highlands. The dark patches, visible to even the naked eye, are the maria, volcanic resurfacing of these areas been they are less scared by impacts. Basaltic lava flows dated predominately at 3.8-3.2 Ga, believed to be caused by upwelling in ancient impact basins due to thinness of the crust. Unlike terrestrial basalt, samples from the Mood indicate a much lower SiO2 content (<45%).

Patches reveal recent lunar volcanism

But much like Venus, where we thought things had calmed billions of years ago, in 2014 NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) allowed us to see our perception of Lunar volcanism was also potentially wrong. It was perceived volcanism came to a rather abrupt stop roughly 3.2 Ga ago but LRO was able to pick out rock formations and deposits which would not have been visible from Earth. These new features were termed Irregular Mare Patches (IMP). These new images suggest volcanism did not stop abruptly as previously thought, but petered off over millenia ending as little as 100 million years ago.Figure 4 shows one such IMP deposit called Maskelyne indicative of smaller, younger eruptions than what we believed formed the maria in the first place.

This leads to a whole new train of thought when it comes to lunar dynamics. Recent volcanism means the Moon’s interior was hotter for longer then we believed, and if so is it still capable of eruptions?


Io is one of my favourite aspects of extraterrestrial volcanism, and to be fair volcanology in general. Despite only being one of Jupiter’s moons, it claims the title of our Solar Systems most volcanically active body. Io’s most famed images captured a sulphurous eruption column which breached Io’s atmosphere climbing 140 kilometres from the surface from the  Pillan Patera caldera. And also in the centre of the image the Prometheus Plume, a 76 kilometre eruption column which cast and amazing shadow of the surface. The first time the Prometheus Plume was spotted was during the Voyager flybys in 1979. It was then captured several times in exactly the same place at a similar altitude by Galileo during its orbital of Jupiter from 1995 to 2003. This suggests an eruption of continuous intensity for over 18 years!!!

Io: The Prometheus Plume

Volcanism is believed to be driven by strong tidal forces. Io is not only subject to Jupiter’s gravitational pull but also that of two of its other satellites; Europa and Ganymede, both much larger than Io. The surface is full of huge caldera’s and lava flows, much longer that we see on Earth. Magmatic composition is believed to vary from ultramafic basaltic flows to much more sulphur rich melts which lead to flows in excess of 2400  °C. It is thought that as many as 400 active volcanoes cover the surface making it a very explosive environment indeed!


Cryovolcanism is a concept that had been batted around for a while on form or another. A volcano erupts a melt based on the composition of the underlying crust and in some cases mantle. On Earth we have a wide variation of silica based magmas and even the rare instances of carbonatites, but what of an icey body rich in water, ammonia or methane?

When the Voyager missions passed Enceladus in the early 1980’s it was suggested that the satellite may be geologically active due to its smooth surfaces and location close to the E Ring. It wasn’t untill NASA’s Cassini mission in 2005 that proof of cryovolcanism on the body really came to light.

The first detection of the icy plume came on February 17th. Then a second event was witnessed July 14th and this time Cassini flew through the gas cloud enabling on board instruments to tell us the composition; predominately water vapour with traces of nitrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. Visual confirmation came in the November with plumes of icey particles streaming from the bodies south polar region. A subsurface ocean under the south polar region is believed to be the cause of a thermal anomaly in the area which could be fuelling volcanic activity, although tidal heating my also have a hand.


In 1989 Voyager 2 passed by Neptune’s moon Triton and took images to give us an insight to these far out bodies and managed to find further proof of cryovolcanism in our Solar System. Several geyser like eruptions were spotted with plumes as high as 8 km above the surface. The entire surface looked relatively young with such fewer impact craters than other bodies the mission had encountered, another indication it was very geologically active.

Pluto and Charon

NASA’s New Horizons mission sent back amazing images in July of not only Pluto, but also its satellite Charon. Both exhibited relatively young surfaces, Charon more so than Pluto has huge patches barely dented by impacts suggesting recent resurfacing. Pluto is home to mountainous regions which have be likened to the Earth’s Rocky’s and huge nitrogen filled glaciers. Although no clear evidence of volcanism was seen as of yet, it is obvious that Pluto is more geologically active then we previously thought. It will take another 16 months for all the data collected to return to Earth so in time we may have evidence of at least one or two more volcanic bodies within our system!

There is still much we don’t know about the dynamics of volcanoes, both here on Earth and on other planetary bodies. One thing we can conclude is the further we explore the universe the more we will learn geologically which we can apply to our own planet and equally, exploring our own planets workings can help us understand others.

Figure 1. Painting; http://www.astroart.org/#!volcanoes/c440

Figure 2. Mercury; http://space.stackexchange.com/questions/2302/how-tectonically-active-is-mercury

Figure 3. Venus poster; http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2015/06/Evidence_for_active_volcanoes_on_Venus

Figure 4. Moon; http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-moon-volcano-recent-nasa-lunar-20141014-story.html

Figure 5. Io; http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_758.html

Figure 6. Enceladus diagram; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enceladus#Cryovolcanism

Figure 7. Enceladus; https://www.pinterest.com/astrobella/volcanoes-fire-and-ice/

Figure 8. Pluto; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-33543383


One response »

  1. By far my favorite issue. Well written and had my full attention the whole way through (which is tough). Looking forward to the next!

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