Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Can We Spot Volcanoes on Alien Worlds? Astronomers Say Yes.

08.09.2010
Volcanoes display the awesome power of Nature like few other events. Earlier this year, ash from an Icelandic volcano disrupted air travel throughout much of northern Europe. Yet this recent eruption pales next to the fury of Jupiter's moon Io, the most volcanic body in our solar system.

Now that astronomers are finding rocky worlds orbiting distant stars, they're asking the next logical questions: Do any of those worlds have volcanoes? And if so, could we detect them? Work by theorists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggests that the answer to the latter is a qualified "Yes."

"You would need something truly earthshaking, an eruption that dumped a lot of gases into the atmosphere," said Smithsonian astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger. "Using the James Webb Space Telescope, we could spot an eruption 10 to 100 times the size of Pinatubo for the closest stars," she added.

Astronomers are decades away from being able to image the surface of an alien world, or exoplanet. However, in a few cases they have been able to detect exoplanet atmospheres for gas giants known as "hot Jupiters." An eruption sends out fumes and various gases, so volcanic activity on a rocky exoplanet might leave a telltale atmospheric signature.

To examine which volcanic gases might be detectable, Kaltenegger and her Harvard colleagues, Wade Henning and Dimitar Sasselov, developed a model for eruptions on an Earth-like exoplanet based on the present-day Earth. They found that sulfur dioxide from a very large, explosive eruption is potentially measurable because a lot is produced and it is slow to wash out of the air.

"Our first sniffs of volcanoes from an alien Earth might be pretty rank!" Kaltenegger said. "Seeing a volcanic eruption on an exoplanet will show us similarities or differences among rocky worlds."

The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed about 17 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere - a layer of air 6 to 30 miles above Earth's surface. The largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, the 1815 Tambora event, was about 10 times more powerful.

Such gigantic eruptions are infrequent, so astronomers would have to monitor many Earth-sized planets for years to catch one in the act. However, if alien worlds are more volcanically active than Earth, success might be more likely.

"A Tambora-sized eruption doesn't happen often here, but could be more common on a younger planet, or a strongly tidally active planet - analogous to Io," said Henning. "Once you detected one eruption, you could keep watch for further ones, to learn if frequent eruptions are common on other planets."

To look for volcanic sulfur dioxide, astronomers would rely on a technique known as the secondary eclipse, which requires the exoplanet to cross behind its star as seen from Earth. By collecting light from the star and planet, then subtracting the light from the star (while the planet is hidden), astronomers are left with the signal from the planet alone. They can search that signal for signs of particular chemical molecules.

Due to its proximity, a hypothetical Earth or super-Earth orbiting Alpha Centauri would offer a best-case scenario for a sun-like star. A super-Earth orbiting a smaller host star close to our own Sun would show the biggest signal. But any Earth-like planet less than 30 light-years away could show faint signs of volcanism when studied with the James Webb Space Telescope.

This research will be published in The Astrophysical Journal. Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7462
daguilar@cfa.harvard.edu
Christine Pulliam
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7463
cpulliam@cfa.harvard.edu
J.D. Harrington
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-5241
j.d.harrington@nasa.gov
Michael Mewhinney
Ames Research Center
650-604-3937
michael.s.mewhinney@nasa.gov

Christine Pulliam | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.cfa.harvard.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht SF State astronomer searches for signs of life on Wolf 1061 exoplanet
20.01.2017 | San Francisco State University

nachricht Molecule flash mob
19.01.2017 | Technische Universität Wien

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Helmholtz International Fellow Award for Sarah Amalia Teichmann

20.01.2017 | Awards Funding

An innovative high-performance material: biofibers made from green lacewing silk

20.01.2017 | Materials Sciences

Ion treatments for cardiac arrhythmia — Non-invasive alternative to catheter-based surgery

20.01.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>