Dear Dr. Universe: I was just wondering if there are any volcanoes on any other planets? -Danny, 10, Kenmore, WA

 

Dear Danny,

The answer to your question takes us out into our solar system and deep below the surfaces of other moons and planets.

It also takes us to the tallest building here at Washington State University. That’s where I met up with my friend Katie Cooper, a geologist who studies Earth and objects beyond its atmosphere.

“The largest volcano in our solar system we’ve found so far is actually not on Earth. It’s on Mars,” she said. “It’s called Olympus Mons and it’s much, much larger than any volcano we have on the Earth.”

We tend to think of the tallest feature on Earth as Mt. Everest. But it’s actually Mauna Kea, one of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawaii. If you measure from its base on the seafloor to the peak, it’s actually taller than Mt. Everest.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 4.08.12 PM“But on Mars, the Olympus Mons is almost three times as high as Mt. Everest,” Cooper said. “So, it’s a whopping large volcano.”

Olympus Mons and volcanoes here on Earth erupt molten rock, or lava. But there are also volcanoes in the solar system that erupt ice.

As a scientist, Katie is sometimes a kind of ice detective. She’s helping the people at NASA study frozen water on one of the moons of Jupiter, a big gas planet.

“Well you know, NASA is like the head of curious people, I would say and so they have sent tons of satellites out circling these planetary bodies,” Cooper said.

In fact, we’ve found that Venus has more than a thousand volcanoes. Neptune and Jupiter’s moons eject water and other gases like geysers do. On one of Jupiter’s moons, large plumes of gas can eject so high that spacecraft can see them as they pass by.

“We look for things that are tell-tale similar to what we see on Earth or might be incredibly different from what’s here on Earth, like ice volcanoes, which we don’t have necessarily here on the Earth,” Cooper adds.

Some of the ice volcanoes are on moons of giant gas planets. But it looks like Pluto has a volcano that might be erupting ice, too.

We still have lots more to explore when it comes to volcanoes on other planets. In the future, we will need scientists to help us understand more about the planets and our Earth.

Cooper explained that when looking for volcanoes on other planets, it’s almost like you have to use your imagination—a very well informed imagination.

“Always continue to remain curious,” Cooper said. “That’s what drives science. It can even be very simple questions, how do we even have volcanoes? How big can they get? Those questions aren’t completely answered yet.”

So keep asking smart and baffling questions about our universe. Maybe one day you can even help us find some more answers about volcanoes on other planets.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe