comscore Hawaii telescopes document explosive moon surface | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News

Hawaii telescopes document explosive moon surface

  • COURTESY NASA / JPL / UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA / MARCH 4, 2014

    A NASA spacecraft sees a volcanic explosion on Jupiter’s third-largest moon, Io.

On hundreds of clear nights over the past five years, giant telescopes on a dormant volcano in Hawaii have trained their gaze across space toward active volcanoes on a simmering hellscape of a moon that orbits Jupiter. It’s called Io.

“You just see so many volcanoes. It’s incredible,” said Katherine de Kleer, a planetary scientist at Caltech who has led the effort.

Last month de Kleer’s team released its full five-year record of Io’s volcanic activity in The Astronomical Journal. Their data show a pimple-ridden surface roiling with eruptions. Some hot spots glow continuously while other areas flare up, then die back down.

The researchers’ hope is that other planetary scientists may be able to glimpse or dig into the underlying rhythms of this world, the most volcanically active body in the solar system.

Witnessing eruptions on a faraway moon used to require more of a trek. Forty years ago the Voyager probes first spotted volcanoes on Io, a body that scientists expected would look dead and cratered. Instead, it turned out to be pockmarked with oozing hot spots.

The Galileo spacecraft took another close look starting in the 1990s, and the Juno mission, currently at Jupiter, glanced at a volcanic plume sprouting from Io’s surface in December. But these short visits didn’t let scientists study whether Io’s drumbeat of eruptions follows underlying patterns.