Sciency Words: Patera

Sciency Words PHYS copy

For the last few weeks, we’ve been touring the moons of Jupiter and learning about some of the scientific terms used to describe the weird geological features we’ve found there. Today, we conclude this Jovian moons series with the term:

PATERA

Meet Io, Jupiter’s fifth moon and the inner-most of the Galilean moons. Io, say hello to the nice blog readers.

sp23-queasy-io

Oh jeez. I’m sorry you had to see that. Io is sort of caught in a gravitational tug of war between Jupiter and the other Galilean moons. You’d feel queasy too if you were constantly being yanked back and forth by all that gravity.

The result is that Io is the most volcanically active object in the Solar System. Just about any time you look at Io, its sulfur volcanoes are erupting.

A Caldera by Any Other Name…

Astronomers use the word patera (plural, paterae) when discussing Io’s volcanoes. The term comes from the Latin word for flat dish, and the name is appropriate.

Paterae don’t look much like the kind of volcanoes we typically imagine. They aren’t raised, mountain-like features but rather flattened, crater-like depressions. If you know what a caldera is, a patera is basically the same thing.

How Calderas… I Mean, Paterae… Form

Picture this: somewhere on Io, we find an underground chamber full of a nasty, sulfur-rich brew. The temperature in this chamber rises, and the pressure builds up. Suddenly, an eruption occurs, and Io spews that sulfur mixture all over its surface.

As that subterranean chamber empties, the ground above it starts to sink. The resulting pit-like surface feature is a patera. Or a caldera. They really are the exact same thing. (Here’s a short video demonstrating the caldera/patera formation process).

Paterae are not unique to Io. They’ve also been observed on Mars, Venus, and Titan, among other places. They’re also found on Earth, except you’re not supposed to call it a patera if it’s on Earth.

Patera vs. Caldera: What’s the Difference?

If you really want to, you can use the word caldera when referring to Io’s volcanoes, or similar volcanoes on other worlds. That usage seems to be acceptable. But it is unlikely that you will ever see the word patera used for such features here on Earth.

I think there’s a bit of geocentrism at work here. A lot of planetary features have one name on Earth and some other name everywhere else. You’ll sometimes find Earthly terminology used off-world, because Earth terms are more familiar to the average reader; the reverse is rarely if ever true.

Which is fine. I’m not judging. A little linguistic geocentrism makes sense to me, at least at present. In some distant Sci-Fi future where humanity has spread across the Solar System and beyond… at that point, things like the caldera/patera distinction might seem a bit silly.

4 Responses to Sciency Words: Patera

  1. I actually find astronomer’s propensity for relentlessly coining names specific to every astronomical body somewhat annoying. I imagine it allows them to discuss those phenomena with terse precision, but at the cost of making their jargon ever more impenetrable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Pailly says:

      I guess I’m sort of used to it at this point. For research purposes, it’s helpful to learn these names. For science fiction purposes, I have a hard time imagining some of these terms still being in use in the future when we have perfectly good alternative terms.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lidy says:

    Thanks for sharing. I can name the planets in our solar system but that’s about it. I’ve never heard the terms caldera or patera before. Don’t remember my class text books ever mentioning it. So it’s good to learn something new.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Pailly says:

      Glad you enjoyed and glad you learned something new. Caldera is definitely a word more people should know. There’s a massive caldera at Yellowstone National Park, and its next eruption could end up being the worst natural disaster in American history.

      Like

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