NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

ScienceShot: Watching Volcanoes on a Distant Moon From the Comfort of Home

Sid is a freelance science journalist.

Put your feet up on your desk, sip a cup of coffee, and watch volcanoes erupt millions of miles away. That's a luxury planetary scientists now have thanks to three large telescopes, two in Hawaii and one in Chile, all equipped with devices to counter the twinkling caused by Earth's atmosphere. Between January 2003 and November 2011, researchers made more than 40 observations of Jupiter's moon Io at near-infrared wavelengths, shown above at right and the region of Io where they took place, outlined in white at left. The researchers spied volcanic hotspots as small as 100 kilometers across. While most of the activity they've seen has been linked to the more than 160 volcanoes previously identified by camera-laden probes either orbiting or whizzing past Jupiter, the telescopes have identified volcanism in one region that had never experienced it before, the team reports today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences in Reno, Nevada. Io, which is slightly larger than our moon, is the most volcanically active orb in the solar system, yet its dynamism was unknown until Voyager 1 swooped past the satellite in 1979. Regular surveys of volcanic activity from Earth will fill the ongoing gap in detailed observations of the satellite by spacecraft, which stretches from September 2003—when scientists sent the Galileo probe crashing into Jupiter—until at least 2030.

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Posted in Space