Ep. 713: Solar System Volcanoes – An Update from LPSC 2024

Last week was one of the most exciting meetings we’ve seen from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, with hundreds of announcements and discoveries from various missions. One theme kept coming up, the Solar System is more volcanically active than we thought. Today, we’ll explore volcanism on other worlds.


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:53] Astronomy cast. Episode 713 an update on volcanoes across the solar System. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest. Hey, Pamela. How you doing? 

Pamela Gay [00:02:17] I am doing well, and I just want to put an extra special thank you to all of our patrons out there, because as spring hits, we are going to be asking of far more of our editors than we do any other time of the year as the sniffles occur. And is it because of you, dear patrons? Right. No one has to listen to this as they lay in bed trying to learn about the universe, because no one wants that. So thank you, patrons, and thank you for tolerating my mispronunciation of your names week after week. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:53] And apologies in advance to everyone is going to have to edit this episode for all the sniffles. So I’ve got something I want to announce, which is that on Saturday, March 23rd will be the 25th anniversary of me Founding Universe Today. Wow. 25 years ago today. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:12] Amazing. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:13] That’s crazy. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And it’s kind of amazing that I still do the same job. And I hope we’re getting better and better over time. And, that’s it. That’s all. I haven’t, I haven’t thought at all what I’m going to do. Like, maybe I’ll do a live stream on Saturday on my YouTube channel or something just to hang out with people and chat or whatever. I don’t know, but it is kind of bonkers. And I mean, when we think about how long we’ve been doing Astronomy Cast. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:44] Yeah, it’s. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:44] Amazing that you just keep showing up every day. And after a while, you’ve done something for a long time. So 25 years. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:52] Two years away from 20 years of astronomy cast. Yeah. And I think that means we need to start planning something. 

Fraser Cain [00:04:00] Right? Like I planned my own anniversary. Yeah. All right, so last week was one of the most exciting meetings we’ve seen from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, with hundreds of announcements and discoveries from various missions. One theme kept coming up, and the solar system is more volcanically active than we thought today. Looks for volcanism on other worlds. So I was watching. I hope not watching. I was browsing through all of the presentations that were given at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It took me about three hours to go through day by day, paper by paper, and and then shortlisting the ones that are stories that we want to report on at Universe Today and. I was on one page. I want this. I want that. I want this, and then I go and I feel like I want that. And I’m like, okay, we’ve got a problem. I just counted them up. I’ve got. I’ve shortlisted 37 stories. Which are the ones that I think are most interesting. Things like the icy origin of the Martian moons, that there’s probably no geologic activity at the bottom of Europa. That one crater on Mars created billions of sub craters. It just goes on and on and on. And so hopefully over the next couple of weeks or months, we will be reporting on these as we have time and and budget to do this. What a week like is this. 

Pamela Gay [00:05:39] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:39] One of the most exciting weeks for LPC that you’ve ever seen. 

Pamela Gay [00:05:44] I. I think that short of when they had a mission that had just done something especially spectacular. Yes, there were a couple of years were like there would be a mission track that was more exciting, right? But when it came to like full on across the board, this mission really shown. And I also have to say it, it stood out for. It had ellipses. Classic humor. So, for instance, there are two sessions side by side. One is Venus surface. Is it hot in here or is it just me? And that one had across the hallway volcanism across the solar system. No, it’s not just you, Venus. I love this back and forth in titles and slides in haikus. Going with the abstracts. 

Fraser Cain [00:06:45] Well, that was the thing. You noticed that clearly there was a I don’t know whether it was an instruction from the people organizing it. 

Pamela Gay [00:06:51] It’s a tradition. 

Fraser Cain [00:06:53] Okay. So all of many of the abstracts were haikus or other forms of poetry. Which which was pretty fun. So they do that every year. I didn’t realize, yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:05] Yeah, that’s been going on for years. And it just gets a little bit more, spread across the community year after year. And this was perhaps the best hybrid meeting I have ever attended. I got press registration for the conference. It was held through V fairs, like just about every other conference on the planet has been since the pandemic hit. But what made this really good was they took the time to make sure that they acknowledged the virtual audience, included the virtual audience, and stayed on time so that you could actually jump between sessions. And it was just extremely well done. And then they left all the recordings up. Yeah. Which benefits both the people who went and the people who were virtual, because no matter which one you were, you can go back and watch the sessions that you weren’t able to see, because both the Venus volcanism and the volcanism everywhere else were held at the same time. And that’s rude. Yeah, that’s okay because of how they organized this. So I just want to say kudos to everyone at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. This was the best virtual conference I’ve attended so far. 

Fraser Cain [00:08:21] Wonderful. Yeah. Congratulations to everybody involved. You know, you’re doing it right when the from a reporting sense, the worst place to be is at the conference. Yeah. Because that that that if you just stay home, you’ve got your coffee, you got your slippers, and you’ve got live feeds from everything that’s going on, then that is the best place to do your reporting on the news that is coming out of the conference. It’s the worst place to interview people and make those personal connections, but still. All right, let’s get let’s get on with the actual task at hand, which is, when we are not, celebrating like we are talking about volcanoes across the solar system. So what’s the new stuff that we learned this week? 

Pamela Gay [00:09:07] I think the one that caused me to simply, like, stop what I was doing and focus momentarily just on LPC was IO has moving and major hotspots. We’re getting those results from Juno, which is also on the chopping block that was also announced. So yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:09:28] And Chandra, oh. 

Pamela Gay [00:09:30] I think that’s what Chandra and Maven are all, being shut down. Circa what was it, fiscal year 26, give or take a fiscal year, Hubble is getting a 5% reduction. They said the cost continues to remain over budget. It’s just what it’s going to do. Right. All right. 

Fraser Cain [00:09:55] So focus. We are we are focusing on volcanoes, feral, Pinos, io, moving hotspots. What’s going on? 

Pamela Gay [00:10:06] It’s this is a world that there aren’t necessarily conclusions yet. There is just data. And we have the same thing coming to us from Venus. So, there are hotspots. These are places where your lack of tectonics allows, the version of lava they have on io to pop out through the crust of io. And every time something new flies by that little world, we are able to map out. And because of Juno’s orbit this year, once a month, it is going past io. Or actually, this was true for 2023. Every month it’s going past io, and it was getting a little bit closer and a little bit closer until it made its closest approach in December perfectly timed for this conference. And they were able to see how the world evolved, how things heated up and cooled down over time. There’s going to be papers coming on this. They’re not there yet, but seeing the images with the hot spots all over them just really took my breath away. 

Fraser Cain [00:11:18] I was able to interview one of the people working on the research of of IO. Yeah, he was one of the people behind the proposed IO mission that didn’t, you know, hit the chopping block instead of two Venus missions. Yeah. And so one of the really interesting discoveries that they’re making about IO is it looks like there is a single contiguous, connected magma layer, one big magma chamber that is connecting all of these hotspots and volcanoes together. They’re all drawing from the same pool across the entire world, and not just magma chambers that are connected underneath one hotspot. And that’s really interesting. It’s the equivalent of the undersea ice oceans on Europa or Intelligence or Callisto or Ganymede and so on that you have that version on io, but it’s made of rock, molten rock. You know, I don’t think there’s going to be any Ionian rock whales swimming around inside those magma chambers, but, you know, you never know. 

Pamela Gay [00:12:28] No. 

Fraser Cain [00:12:29] That’s great. 

Pamela Gay [00:12:30] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:12:32] Yeah, I would say that’s the that is the big one. So this was a story that I did not expect us to be reporting on. And this was a brand new, previously unseen, enormous shield volcano on Mars that there are now five giant shield volcanoes on Mars and not four. 

Pamela Gay [00:12:52] Yeah. And and I have to admit, you probably know more on the story than I do because I went down the Venus rabbit hole. 

Fraser Cain [00:12:59] Okay. 

Pamela Gay [00:13:00] There was so much coming out of this meeting. It’s going to take both of our brains to get through all of it. So I’m going to hand Mars to you. 

Fraser Cain [00:13:07] So, you know, we obviously know about Olympus Mons and then these other three volcanoes on Mars, there’s a great small and passionate minds and aka minds. And those are the four big super volcanoes, the big shield volcanoes on on Mars. But it turns out there is a fifth one that they’re calling. Well, they don’t have a name. But it’s in the noxious labyrinth, this region of Mars. And this is this this sort of right at the very end of the Valles Marineris, if you sort of imagine the valleys Marineris is like this, this huge valley that is moving across Mars, and at one end leads into the Tharsis bulge, where all of those big volcanoes are. And right at the very end of the valleys. Marineris is this very complicated kind of maze like terrain that they’re calling that they call noxious labyrinths. And there’s been plenty of, you know, we’ve reported on it’s really interesting, fascinating terrain on Mars. And what they found was that that this terrain is actually a heavily weathered shield volcano that has been there in plain sight all this time. It’s just that the with the other ones, because they’re in the bulged up terrain, they’re a lot more obvious on the surface of Mars. While the one that’s hiding inside this Noctis labyrinth, this region does, you know, a lot of material slumped down, a lot of cracks formed, and so it’s a lot harder to see. But it still is 8000m tall. So it is it is the height of Mount Everest. But that’s nothing when you can imagine Olympus mines can be tens of kilometers high. So. So yeah, brand new volcano on Mars. 

Pamela Gay [00:14:55] The size of Everest, which is allowed because the gravity is so much lower on this world. And. And when we think of planets as being round. Mars is here to tell you that the shape of Play does shaped like by a small child. Yeah. Hairs and mounds alike. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:16] Yeah. All right. You were focusing on Venus. Let’s talk about. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:18] Venus. Yeah. So the thing that really got me about Venus is they’ve been looking at these crony. These they they are basically circular ish structures that then have what looks like the solar corona on the surface of, of Venus. We see them in radar images. We can’t see them directly because of the expletive clouds. And the more we look like conservative estimates are, there’s over 450 of this. That’s conservative estimates. Yeah. It is unclear how currently active these are, but it is thought that within recent geological time, some of these things have been going off. And they’re trying to figure out how to explain the surface of this vaguely Earth sized world that doesn’t have plate tectonics, that is rotating slower than its year, essentially. Right. And how do you put all of these pieces together? Two of the big results that stood out to me. There was, one grad student who was willing to stand up and say, I have a controversial idea, and I want your feedback. Tell me where I’m wrong. And it was it was brilliant. You have to compliment any scientist, especially a young scientist who is willing to stand up and do that. And what he had looked at is when you find craters on Venus, when you look at the pattern of detritus around the crater, they are elongated and you would expect the elongation to be, related to the wind, which is primarily in one direction and, related to things like rotation of the world and stuff like that. And mostly you see that until you start looking at things statistically in your, your brain is like, oh, they’re all perfect. And then your statistics like, no, no, actually they aren’t. And he was able to find degrees of not aligned with the winds in the rotation that he thinks may show that the current orientation we see of Venus upside down rotating wrong eye is as suspected due to massive rearranging of the planet’s alignment, and see that reflected in the elimination of the detritus around craters. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:06] And it’s really interesting. 

Pamela Gay [00:18:08] Yeah. That that. This would still be reflected in the surface of the world is like, I want a high resolution radar, get me the high resolution radar. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:19] And that’s those missions that I mentioned before. Yeah, the Da Vinci and the Veritas missions that were the ones that were chosen over the IO mission. Right. These are going to get us the high resolution images of the surface of Venus. It’s amazing how low like we have resolution on the surface of Venus, which is in the hundreds of meters to a single kilometer scale compared to Mars, where you’re down to the tens of centimeters. Same thing with the weight, right? Totally different level of depth. Necessary because as you mentioned, those awful, awful clouds block any attempt to to perceive it from space. You have to use, lidar laser imaging, like what they did with the Magellan mission. No, they use these. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:07] They used radar with. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:08] These radar for. Yeah, these radar for Magellan. And and this was previous to this LPC meeting, but researchers saw could see volcanic activity on the surface of Venus. They were able to see bulging veins. The kinds of things that we saw in the lead up to Mount Saint Helens. Yet just in the in the time that Magellan back in the the what 1990 was, was taking its radar images from one sweep to another one, people were able to see changes in the surface from volcanic activity. So we know although there’s no active volcanoes that we can really see, there is definitely some level of volcanic activity on the surface of Venus, and that hopefully gives us the story about about just how active this planet is. Will it erupt in the future? When did it shut down? When did it? It’s like, runaway greenhouse effect begin. And this is all just piecing the story. That’s really cool. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:11] And along with this was news that Veritas has been refunded by NASA. And while DaVinci is delayed, it looks like DaVinci and Veritas will both be go with launches circa 2031 2032. And Europe is continuing with envision and NASA’s continuing their partnership. And the the other talk on on volcanoes on or I guess impact to try. This isn’t so much volcanoes. It’s simply snuck into this episode. The other volcano on Venus story that really caught my attention was, so in trying to figure out what’s going on with this crazy surface there, there are faults, these long linear features, and we see things like this in Iceland where the the grinder avec, complex of eruptions is coming out along these fissures. Well, what they’ve been doing is looking at the slope of, of these krone that aren’t always round. In fact, a lot of them are very much elongated. And by looking at the orientation of these, a long gated krone relative to the nearest fissures, faults, linear structures, we’re figuring it out from radar. They were able to to find that the krone are largely aligned with the nearest linear faulting features on the surface of Venus that says these are related structures. So these cracking structures, it’s it’s all sorts of really cool volcanism related geology. And that’s new and super cool. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:07] And it’s interesting, I mentioned earlier on we were talking about the Mars volcano that you’ve got this connection between the the Tharsis bulge area and that cracking violent rains. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:22] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:23] And then connecting up to the, to The Dalles. Yeah. To The Dalles Marineris, that, that these, these systems are linked and that there are larger scale processes happening on this world that after a while you can start to see the big picture as you get better and better data. That’s really interesting. All right. Let’s shift gears then and look at volcanoes. They’re a type of volcano. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:48] Yeah. And and I have to admit, in prepping for this show, I learned something that I probably knew and forgot. I apparently, at a certain age, you get to start relearning things and being excited all over again because you forgot the first time you learned them. And for me, that new thing that I learned. Was Tritons. Volcanoes were originally spotted doing their ejecting stuff back in 1989. So when we were in high school was when cryo volcanoes were discovered. And it wasn’t Europa, it wasn’t in solidus. These ones that we talk about all the time. It was Triton. This captured Kuiper Belt object that’s bigger than Pluto had a water ice plume that. Was spotted in the 80s. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:48] Yeah. So? This kills me so I have not forgotten. I bring this up all the time. So when Voyager two flew past Neptune in 1989, it saw. Substantial evidence of geysers at Triton, and they identified it at the time. And they they wrote it down and they said. Pamela may forget, but the rest of us will never forget this. There is. There are ice volcanoes in the solar system. And then they said, did we see that at Europa? And we’re still not sure. And people have attempted to try and detect them in Europa. It wasn’t until Cassini went to the Saturn system and actually saw the active cryovolcanism on Enceladus that you got this just unquestionable proof that you have ice volcanoes in the solar system. But the original version of this is what’s happening over at Triton. So did we learn something new about these, this volcanism on Triton? 

Pamela Gay [00:24:58] No. I simply, in prepping for this show, learned that. And one and for everyone else in our audience to to share in the delight that we’ve known about these suckers since the 80s. 

Fraser Cain [00:25:11] And this is one of the big reasons why admission to Triton was the other mission that got passed over in favor of the two missions to Venus. It was two missions to Venus, a mission io, and a mission to Triton. And then it was the two Venus Argo and the io and the Triton missions are. Who knows what’s going to happen to those? The Chinese are planning on building a mission to Triton. Every few months, we report on a new potential idea to go to to go to Triton. People are trying to figure out ways. Could you like aerobraking the atmosphere of Neptune while you’re arriving in the system? Like maybe there’s some clever way. Could you use a solar sail? How can we do this? Because Triton has all of these mysteries that we really want to try and understand, and yet it’s so far away. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:01] And we want to do it in our own lifetime. And that’s the problem. Yeah. Like like you could get there if you accelerated halfway and you decelerated halfway. But then we will be dead. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:14] When this isn’t. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:16] Science. Right, right, right. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:19] So but you were going to mention some additional information. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:24] Yeah. So, I mean, here’s the thing. Cryo volcanoes didn’t really come up a lot in this particular, LPC except insofar as what the heck is going on at Europa continues to be a theme. And it sounds like you already did an interview on this, or at least went down the rabbit hole on this. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:47] I, I go down the rabbit hole on Europa all the time, but the, the one piece of news that came out a ton of bad news is that that it doesn’t look like there’s the level of, of geologic activity at the bottom of Europa that we would want to see to be able to be injecting large amounts of of hydrogen gas and various elements required for life into the system, like at the bottom of the ocean. Here we see the black smokers, right, with these really vibrant ecosystems around them. And that’s how a lot of materials have been thought they maybe that’s the origin of life on Earth. And the expectation is, okay, if we’re seeing we know there’s a subsurface ocean on Europa. We know one moon next door with io. It’s it’s experiencing tremendous tidal flexing. Couldn’t Europa have volcanic activity as well? And now it’s starting to look more like it’s looking like there’s less and less volcanic activity on Europa than what we would hope. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:53] And and this is one of these things where I honestly see this as an evolving story. Yeah. Because with Europa, what we’ve seen over the years is discussion of how thick is the ice, with estimates going from hundreds of meters in the, least thick sections to tens of kilometers in the least thick sections. And there’s there’s a lot of give or take between those estimates. We look at the surface and we see these chaotic regions and, and the question becomes what kind of forces, what kind of hydraulics is causing this? And so we’re trying to understand what’s going on at the center of this world from computer models that have as their comparison data, can they reproduce what we see at the surface? And we don’t fully understand what we see at the surface. So I put this in the category of, put bigger question marks next to your cartoon graphics of hydrothermal vents on Europa. But don’t give up hope yet that that our models have room to allow them to exist. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:10] Yes. Aurora, was there anything else? Related to volcanism across the solar system you want to bring up. I mean, there was many more stories. I mean, we are just touching the surface of this. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:25] So the moon was a recurring theme. Any time someone could possibly mention Artemis, as they did? Yes. It turns out that in coming years, the great source of planetary science funding in the US is going to be the Artemis program. And this means that we saw a bunch of presentations on things like, updated catalogs of lunar silicates of. Yeah, where are all the shield volcanoes? What about mud volcanoes? All these different things just kept coming up, and and what I loved is they would go from discussing, here are all the things that we’re going to finally be able to put astronauts on the moon to go walk up to, and then they would sneak up on, and Mars is the final destination and switch gears violently to and hey, what is the mix of things over on Mars? But it’s easy to look at the moon and forget in this landscape that is so shaped by craters that not all of the craters are impact craters. There are volcanoes very, very dormant, very, very dead. I’m not even going to go with dormant, just dead, buried dead volcanoes on the moon. But they’re there because this was a once molten chunk of the an Earth that got bounced off and had to solidify and it solidified from the outside in. And that led to volcanoes. 

Fraser Cain [00:31:16] There was some research that came out a couple of months ago, where researchers looked at areas that had had landslides in recent periods. Because the moon is still cooling, it’s still shrinking. Yeah. And you’ve got areas which are cracking and you’ve got places where you got the side of a crater or whatever. It’s exactly at the right angle to hold. And then as soon as you get the slight shrinking, a slight earthquake, a moon quake, then you’ll get a landslide. And they actually mapped out all of the places that could have potential moon slides, so that when the Artemis folks arrive at the moon, you want to skip. You don’t want to be in an avalanche of regolith. And so they’ve they’ve identified all of those danger spots to make sure that you avoid them. Well, it’s been interesting. And and as I mentioned, this is just a fraction of the stories. Hopefully you’ll see our coverage at Universe Today. Pamela, I know you’ve been doing a lot of reporting will continue to digest. I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to talk about this in the coming weeks and months. This one’s this one’s going to take a while to fully sort of work its way through the system. 

Pamela Gay [00:32:23] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:32:24] Thank you, Pamela. 

Pamela Gay [00:32:25] And thank you. And thank you again to all of our patrons. You’re the reason that everyone is not being subjected to hayfever related sniffles. To to all of you out there, I wish I could thank all of you by name. But I at least get to thank some of you by name this week. I would like to thank and to saw Matt Rucker, Mark Steven Rusnak, Abraham Cottrell share some Alex Rain, Andrew Stevenson, Paul Hayden, Steven Coffee, the lonely sound person. I’m sorry, that one just has to be said in a fun voice. Bart Flaherty, Benjamin Carrier, Jim Schooler, Daniel Loosely, Gregory Singleton, Tim McMeekin, Kenneth Ryan, Ninja neck, Michael. Regan, Jay. Alex. Anderson, Bruce. Amazon, Scott. Briggs. Frodo. Tannenbaum. Who’s name? I’m sorry, I spelled it fanatically in ways I don’t understand. Jim McGee and, planet planetary father practice. Glen Mcdavid’s man ski the air. Major. Nyla Lou Zeeland, David gates, Georgie Island of Justin Proctor, Mathias Hayden, Scott Cohen, Marco Rossi, Matthew Horstman, Scott Bieber and the big squish squash. That one just brings me joy. 

Fraser Cain [00:33:47] Thanks, everyone. 

Pamela Gay [00:33:48] Thank you. 

Fraser Cain [00:33:49] We’ll see you next week. 

Pamela Gay [00:33:50] Buh bye. Astronomy cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gang. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you. Thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast. 

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