Recent headlines have been saying that we’ve discovered volcanoes on Pluto. But these aren’t “normal” volcanoes. They’re cryovolcanoes: volcanoes that erupt with ice rather than lava.
You may have also heard or read somewhere that cryovolcanoes are something new, something never before seen elsewhere in the Solar System.
Okay, cryovolcanism is nothing new. It was first observed on Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, back in 1989. Similar cryovolcanic activity has been studied in detail on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, and there’s compelling evidence that Jupiter’s moon Europa has it too.
When cryovolcanoes erupt, they spew a mix of icy cold materials, often water with other chemicals like nitrogen or ammonia. This icy mix may originate from subsurface reservoirs of liquid water or, in the case of Europa and Enceladus, vast subsurface oceans that may (or may not) be capable of supporting alien life.
But Pluto’s cryovolcanoes are still kind of special. Previously known cryovolcanoes are basically cracks or fissures amidst an otherwise relatively flat landscape. Pluto’s are tall mountains with openings on top. They look like volcanoes.
So what we’re seeing on Pluto is new to us, but it’s not entirely new. In fact, we should really stop thinking of cryovolcanism as rare or strange or exceptional. Given how many places in the outer Solar System either have or are suspected to have cryovolcanic activity, it’s actually Earth’s “normal” red-hot lava volcanoes that are weird.
Volcanoes on Pluto Look a Lot Like Those on Earth and Mars from Ars Technica.
Pluto Revealed with Cathy Olkin from TEDx Detroit.